The Israel Defense Forces announced Saturday night a major step, presaging a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
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The army is to instruct Palestinians living near the Israeli border Israel to leave their homes, by phone and with posters. The next step is to fire on them, first with warning strikes and then with targeted strikes. The official Israeli explanation is “removing the population for its own protection.” In practice, the move has two goals, to warn the Palestinian population in the Strip of the likely consequences of continued Hamas rocket fire at Israel, and to disrupt the organization’s defenses in anticipation of an Israeli ground operation.
Still, despite the convoy of tanks heading south and the infantry brigades massing near the border with Gaza, it is obvious that Israel is in no hurry for the operation’s ground phase. The instruction to the forces has been delayed, presumably in an effort to first exhaust diplomatic options. Reports of an imminent diplomatic framework agreement have increased since Saturday afternoon. The international community has certainly begun to wake up, and we can expect the imminent arrival of numerous foreign ministers, though it could take a few more days after that to reach a cease-fire agreement.
As with the two previous operations in the Gaza Strip and the Second Lebanon War, this is the stage in which various mediators step in. They usually proceed on parallel, competing tracks until nearly the end. There are reports already of efforts by the United States, the Quartet, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority, with no telling who will win out.
Quartet envoy Tony Blair met in Egypt with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on Saturday, and according to absolutely unauthorized reports discussed the following conditions: a complete cessation of hostilities on both sides of the border (and, by extension, terror attacks using the tunnels), and a relaxation of restrictions (mostly on the Egyptian side) on the passage of goods and people in and out of the Strip. Hamas has long demanded such relaxations from Cairo, at the Rafah crossing. A cease-fire agreement might depend on Sissi in the end.
The images of destruction and casualties broadcast from Gaza over the weekend have spurred growing international interest in the conflict. Israel hopes these images will eventually convince Hamas that it has already paid too high a price without making any gains. Meanwhile, the images are leading the international community to shorten the rope it is giving Israel for a military operation. According to the United Nations, as of Saturday night there were 151 deaths in Gaza, an estimated 70 percent of whom were civilians. That’s about the daily civilian body count in Syria’s civil war, but in Gaza the world still sees the possibility of intervention leading to a cease-fire.
Hamas had very few operational achievements over the weekend. The number of rockets being launched fell significantly, but at 8 P.M. Saturday the organization made the dramatic announcement that it would fire a barrage of rockets at greater Tel Aviv in an hour’s time. That definitely got the attention of the Israeli media, but it produced neither images of national panic nor damage, and like before, Iron Dome missiles intercepted the rockets. For now it seems Hamas is best at public relations stunts, from hacking Israeli websites to announcing its rocket fire.
Despite the superb rate of interceptions by the Iron Dome systems (an eighth battery was deployed over the weekend), there is growing public support for expanding the operation and launching a ground offensive. While pressure on the Israeli government to show results may make a ground operation happen, expectations should be realistic. The IDF cannot solve the rocket problem once and for all without taking over the entire Gaza Strip and conducting extensive searches that could last months, without guaranteed results. Besides, even the right wing does not really support such a move.
Moreover, if intelligence estimates are accurate and the IDF manages to destroy some 2,000 Palestinian rockets (in addition to nearly 700 fired from Gaza), there are still enough rockets in the Strip to carry on with the current round of fighting – close to 10,000, including at least 200 mid-range missiles that could hit as far as Haifa.
The conclusion is that without a wide-scale ground maneuver deep into Gaza, talk of quelling the flames is useless. It seems the government is focused on more modest targets.
But let’s assume for a moment the operation does end with great success, and Egypt clamps down on the Rafah tunnels and weapons smuggling, in contrast to the post-Operation Pillar of Defense period. Most of the mid-range missiles fired these days from Gaza are made locally, meaning the materials and know-how for their assembly are already inside the Strip. Israel’s only hope is to suppress the Palestinians’ rocket manufacturing capabilities ahead of any future confrontation.
What is being discussed, alongside the continued aerial campaign, is a ground maneuver to increase pressure on Hamas by targeting rocket storage and launch sites as well as killing militants and preempting tactical surprises. In the days leading up to the current operation the IDF and Shin Bet foiled an ambitious attempt by Hamas to carry out a terror attack using tunnels in the Kerem Shalom area. As Haaretz reported earlier this year, security services believe Hamas has dug close to 30 tunnels for launching attacks into Israel.
Hamas would meet an IDF ground invasion into Gaza with anti-tank missiles, IEDs and a defensive array of underground tunnels. At the same time, rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers are expected to increase. The cabinet would have to assess whether there is enough accurate intelligence and achievable targets to approve a limited ground operation. The ministers will have to choose between appearing as willing to end the current round in a draw (which Hamas would consider a great victory) and their fear of things going wrong and the IDF sustaining casualties. The diplomatic clock is already ticking in the background.
Revenge is not a calculation for the cabinet. Iron Dome has kept Israeli casualties to a minimum so far. Those who complain the power ratio makes Israelis oblivious to the cries of suffering coming out of Gaza forget one critical point – without Iron Dome, the number of dead Israelis by now be in double digits. Such a number would have added pressure on the IDF to strike proportionately from the air and deploy ground forces – thus dramatically increasing the number of dead on both sides.