So far, it seems, Israel has learnt the lessons of the previous operation in Gaza
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It all looks so depressingly similar – a devastating Israeli attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip while hundreds of Palestinian missiles are fired at Israeli towns. Massive ground forces on the border with Gaza prepare to embark on a house-to-house battle. How very 2008. You could almost call it Operation Cast Lead II.
Each side has a long list of bloody grievances, and any attempt to answer the question "who started?" is destined to fail. Every episode, though, is a result of the previous one and while the Israel Defense Forces still sees Cast Lead as a well-executed military exercise, the death toll and scenes of devastation in Gaza, as well as the diplomatic fallout, are what remained in the international public's mind, along with the deterrence of Hamas, which lasted less than four years. The apparent erosion of this deterrence is the official reason for the operation's timing.
This isn't a second Operation Cast Lead, though. There are a number of significant differences in the circumstances and execution of the latest offensive which are affecting the way events are unfolding and will influence the eventual outcome. Here are the reasons:
1. Cohesion at the top – The last two major military offensives saw deep discord within Israel's highest echelons. During the Second Lebanon War, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz didn't get on with his generals, and the inexperienced Defense Minister Amir Peretz failed to restore order. During Cast Lead, the political triumvirate - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - were political rivals who distrusted each other. Trouble at the top means lengthy decision-making processes.
This show is run by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak. The two men have worked together well for nearly four years, Barak remains a closer ally to Netanyahu than any of his Likud ministers. Unlike a possible strike on Iran, in this case they have their way in cabinet and no significant opposition from the security establishment.
Despite his belligerent image, Netanyahu is obsessively cautious. Barak is a fan of quick and sophisticated maneuvers. They are not disposed to a protracted, large-scale campaign and beneath the talk of "broadening the operation" is an eagerness to find a way of ending it this week still.
2. The ace has already been played – During Cast Lead, Hamas' leadership barricaded themselves under Gaza's Shifa Hospital. The IDF was therefore denied a high-profile assassinationand the Israeli public the satisfaction these actions usually invoke. Opening this operation with the targeted assassination of Hamas Chief of Staff Ahmad Jabari means that Israel's leaders will have an easier time facing their public when they decide to end it. On the other hand, it gives Hamas a burning need for an achievement of its own.
3. Hamas missiles back to square one – The military build-up in Gaza over the last four years was unprecedented. Dozens of Fajr and M75 medium-range missiles were installed in concrete underground silos, ready to be used at a moment such as this. Nearly all of them went up in smoke during the first few hours of the operation.
It won't be easy for them to rebuild the capability once calm is restored. Hamas is no longer on friendly terms with Iran, its main supplier, after they fell out over the Syrian civil war. Israel, for its part, has gotten a lot better at interdicting the smuggling routes. There is a limited number of hiding places in the crowded Gaza Strip and Israeli intelligence has exposed most of them. Hamas will try to reequip but will also be looking for other options to hurt Israel: Launching from bases in Sinai, a return to suicide attacks or, rather, diplomacy? Hamas is back to the drawing board.
4. Iron dome has proven itself – The first missile defense system shielding civilians anywhere in the world is still in advanced development stages but as of Saturday, five urban areas are covered by one battery each. Those who said it is a game changer probably spoke too soon. It has saved lives (three civilians were killed from a rocket in Kiryat Malakhi, which is not covered by Iron Dome) and given the government a breathing space. But the system, far from perfect, is still limited by the number of operational batteries. Missiles still get through and one of them could yet cause major civilian casualties. The billions invested in the system have not yet caused Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations to change tactic. They are still firing whatever they have towards Israel. But the success of the system is another boost to Israeli public morale and may help the government to decide on a ceasefire.
5. Civilian casualties in Gaza still relatively low – As of midday Sunday, 45 Palestinians have been killed from Israeli strikes, less than twenty of them civilians. While the images of dead babies in Gaza are shocking, this is nothing like the much greater numbers of the Cast Lead death toll. While this is largely due to the changes in Israeli tactics, while hundreds of bombs are fired into Gaza, any one of them falling on a house or a mosque full of people can still change the entire picture, despite the pinpoint accuracy and intelligence gathering.
For now though there is no diplomatic outcry or images of carnage on the international networks. That makes a huge difference.
6. Ground offensive an option, not a necessity – The cabinet's authorization to call up 75,000 reservists does not mean that all of them, or anything near that number, have actually been called up. Many of those who have been drafted are not yet in battle stations. This is probably not a bluff to force Hamas to agree to a ceasefire; the IDF is still traumatized by its ill-preparedness in the Second Lebanon War and the government is giving it all the tools it may need, should the decision to go in on the ground be taken.
But the lack of appetite for a ground offensive is clear both within the cabinet and the IDF's high command. The infantry brigades and armored battalions are poised around Gaza as a clear signal to what could happen if Hamas continues to fire on Israel. They may well be stood down.
7. A clear message from Washington – Cast Lead was launched in the twilight between administrations: George W. Bush was packing his bags while Barack Obama had yet to move into the White House. This time, despite the proximity to the American elections, it is clear who is boss and so far, there is a clear American green light for Israel's operation. Most of the western governments have fallen in line. This is also the first clear message coming from the administration in Obama's second term, after fears that he would "get back" at Netanyahu for his perceived support of Mitt Romney.
Netanyahu and Barak are aware that international support can be very temporary. They have a clear incentive to hold on to that.
8. A much quicker "hasbara" – The speed with which footage of Israeli strikes in Gaza reaches the television screens and social networks is a result of a concerted effort by the various press operations of the IDF and government departments to collate the surveillance images constantly streaming in to the command posts and clear them for publication. The immediate purpose of this is to swamp the airwaves with Israel's narrative and chosen pictures. The PR operation was given advance warning of the impending operation and so far as can be judged, seems to be working to a large degree.
The second objective is to ready for the moment when a tragedy occurs and a bomb falls on a school in Gaza. Then there will be a mad rush to broadcast proof that the strike was on a legitimate target. For now, though, Israel is not losing the media war.
9. No media blackout or blockade on Gaza – Foreign reporters are being allowed into Gaza, as opposed to Cast Lead when the Erez crossing was closed to the international media. Food supplies are also going through the crossings from Israel and Egypt and so far there are no reports of acute shortages in the Strip. The presence of journalists, reporting freely from Gaza, serves both sides. Picture of civilian casualties and the destruction of buildings promote sympathy for the Palestinians; but this time around, it is not being described as a humanitarian crisis and there is less pressure on Israel to end the operation.
10. Hamas can also point to achievements – The handful of launches towards Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem resulted in one destroyed car and has negligible military value, if any. Israel knew they had missiles that can reach its main urban centers and only a few of those survived the initial strikes. Tel-Aviv is holding up well and the new Iron Dome battery has already intercepted two rockets. But Hamas can say (and is already saying) to its people that they hit the Zionists most valuable targets which should also make a ceasefire more palatable to them.
11. Egypt is Hamas' patron and that could be a good thing – Four years ago, Israel and Mubarak's Egypt were cooperating very closely behind the scenes, pressuring Hamas, which had the backing of Iran and Syria. Israel still has diplomatic relations with Egypt but this time the Muslim Brotherhood administration is clearly in Hamas' corner. Egyptian support may have emboldened Hamas in recent weeks, leading to the current operation, but it also creates pressure on President Mohammed Morsi. Everyone is expecting him to utilize his rapport with Hamas and deliver a ceasefire soon. If the talks with Palestinian leaders currently underway in Cairo succeed, backed by Turkish and Qatari endorsement, it will prove that there are advantages to the new Egyptian regime.