Analysis |

Until Israel and Hamas Meet Again

None of Israel's political or military leaders imagines that this week's confrontation with Hamas will be the last. But it did buy both sides vital time to prepare for future rounds.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The prime minister had no other choice: The barrage of rockets fired at Negev communities at increasingly shorter intervals, alongside Hamas’ effort to impede military patrols even on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, pushed Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner. Allegations about residents of the south being abandoned, which were leveled at his government precisely at the onset of the election campaign, forced it to respond. The decision to launch the operation with the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari and the destruction of a Fajr missile arsenal was reasonable, under the circumstances. Far from the sort of warmongering leader often depicted by the media, Netanyahu knew he could probably anticipate some sort of achievement, albeit limited.

Israel seems to have two radical options for dealing with the insufferable reality along the Gaza border: It can overthrow the Hamas regime via an expansive, prolonged military action, or it can try to reach a long-term diplomatic arrangement with the Islamist organization.

Notwithstanding the vociferous demands by the right wing during Operation Pillar of Defense, the first alternative is not viable at the moment. Israel is afraid of its implications, including: the deaths of many soldiers during a ground operation (an eventuality that Israelis seem increasingly unlikely to accept, despite the worsening security reality); mass, if unintentional, killing of Palestinian civilians that would precipitate another Goldstone report and complete loss of international legitimacy; long-term occupation of the Strip, with its 1.5 million civilians; and a palpable danger of total severance of relations with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

Nor does the second option seem viable at this stage. Ideologically, it appears that Hamas would balk at the possibility of a long-term settlement, even if it would entail nothing more than an agreement not to stage attacks. Politically, Hamas feels empowered by the Egyptian (and, in fact, pan-Arab) support that was articulated during the operation. Moreover, from Netanyahu’s standpoint, any round of direct negotiations with Hamas would stick like a bone in his throat.
In the absence of sweeping solutions, Israel has chosen to maintain its deterrent capability: Any time things spin out of control, it strikes Hamas hard in the hope that this will suffice to recalibrate the balance of threats, and deter the organization from disturbing the peace along the border, at least for a time. The art of measuring the level of deterrence power is far from an exact science. Nobody expected that failed actions against Hezbollah in 2006 would lead to six-and-a-half years of quiet (which, for the time being, persists) on the Lebanon border.

In the longer term, it is not certain that Israel’s leadership knows how to contend with Hamas. Since the cease-fire went into effect, some have mentioned the hope that Egypt’s involvement will strengthen its ongoing commitment to the enforcement of quiet. But Israel now depends more than ever on the goodwill of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. When such goodwill is not in the offing, Israel relies on tricks, such as high-profile assassinations, which invariably lead to new rounds of violence. That Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak fully believe in the victory narrative that they sold on Wednesday to Israeli citizens can be doubted. Of course, as President Shimon Peres is wont to ask, what’s the alternative?

Obedient but unenthusiastic

Every day this week, journalists received phone calls from army reserve officers who asked to be briefed about the status of the negotiations in Cairo. Despite the public flexing of muscles and even though the emergency call-ups were fully heeded the army was not enthusiastic about a ground operation. Other than one or two division or battalion commanders, the feeling among General Staff and field officers was quite similar: If it is possible to finish the job during this round of the conflict via air strikes, all the better. The problem is that the tough aerial blow delivered at the start of such an operation is usually difficult to synchronize precisely with any subsequent political-diplomatic plan intended to end the military action.

In the week between the original attack and the cease-fire, the Israel Defense Forces tried to preserve its achievements and avoid serious blunders. Overall, it appears to have succeeded. The General Staff estimated yesterday that more than half of Hamas’ weaponry was either destroyed or fired by the Islamic organization during the operation. This estimate will have to be reviewed and confirmed by an analysis of events on the ground. Another variable of interest is the pace at which arsenals can be stocked anew by the Iranians.

Comparisons to the Second Lebanon War were drawn frequently during this operation. But perhaps it would be wiser now to talk about a Third Lebanon War (which is liable to be connected to a First Iran War). This operation in Gaza was a small-scale affair. Thanks to the Iron Dome system, bomb shelters and “secure spaces,” and correct behavior on the part of most of the population the home front held up quite well, all in all . A round of fighting against Hezbollah will be vastly more difficult to endure. In that scenario the challenge will not be dozens of rockets with the capacity of hitting Tel Aviv, rather hundreds of such long-range rockets, alongside thousands more with a range that extends to Haifa.

The only conclusion that can be drawn here is that missile-interception systems, the Iron Dome and the Magic Wand, must be upgraded rapidly, and that additional batteries of existing systems must be procured immediately. Improvements in the IDF’s attack capability must continue.

Egos restrained

On the positive side of this operation’s ledger, the definition of reasonable goals, and the leadership’s ability to restrain its ego, warrant mention. This time around, we did not witness officials fighting to grab the microphone, or an attempt by the defense minister to downplay the credit lavished upon the IDF chief of staff who, in turn, might have done his utmost to deflect the spotlight from the Southern Command chief: All that happened during Operation Cast Lead. Netanyahu kept a low public profile, perhaps due to his understanding of the operation’s limited possibilities.

This week the public received a particularly unpleasant lesson about the limits of power in the Middle East. On the diplomatic front, Israel continues to be dependent on the Egyptians, the United States and even Turkey, in order to finish what it starts on the military level. Despite the conspicuous gap in military strength separating the two sides, hostile neighbors have the power to cause considerable damage to the home front. On the other end of any sentence, we utter in Hebrew, there sits an Arab with a rocket launcher.

With the chief of staff keeping mum and generals busy with their assignments, the people need a human hero to complement the missile interception batteries. This vacuum was filled this week by Channel 2 military correspondent Roni Daniel, who favored a ground invasion: Were the sympathy extended to him to be measured in electoral terms, such an assessment would surely show that he has passed by all of his former colleagues who have left the TV station.

The media onslaught that Daniel was subjected to appears to miss the point. No less important than any of the learned analyses he might give is his basic viewpoint. A decent, principled person, Daniel expresses his views without partisanship or superfluous verbiage.

Ehud Barak, who has felt uneasy about Daniel in recent years, said this week that, “Roni making a contribution to Israel’s deterrence power. And I say this as a person who has certain experience in intelligence work.” At any rate, the situation we had this week was better than alternative: jingoistic generals beating the drums and mainstream media restraining themselves.

On the eve of this last round of escalation, during a speech delivered on the anniversary of the death of Moshe Dayan, Barak quoted from the eulogy Dayan delivered at the 1956 funeral of Ro’i Rothberg, the Nahal brigade’s security coordinator on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, who was killed while driving away Arab marauders: “It is pointless to mention their deep-seated hatred of us... This is the choice of our lives to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or to let the sword fall from our fist and our lives be cut down.” During the past week, Nahal Oz and neighboring kibbutzim endured the heavy fire of rockets and mortar launched from the Strip.

On a visit to see the few residents who stubbornly remained in their communities in the border area, the principal thing one saw was deep depression, alongside feelings of hatred toward Palestinians. “The left is dead here,” one kibbutz member told us. Voters who once supported the Labor Party have switched allegiances to the local Knesset member, Shai Hermesh, of Kadima. The kibbutz members relate to Hermesh as ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students relate to Yaakov Litzman, the deputy health minister from United Torah Judaism: They figure that Hermesh will obtain government funding for them and new defense fortifications, and so they support him.

In discussions with politicians and army officers, it is often claimed that the main goal of this operation was to buy some time for Israel, until the next round of confrontation. Proponents of this claim maintain that the more severe the blow now, the better Hamas will internalize Israel’s determination the longer the next round can be deferred. As to the question of whether there will be another such round, there is no argument; generals and politicians do not talk about the possibility that the passage of time could work to Israel’s advantage.

Will the continued smuggling of Iranian rockets into Gaza eventually mean that the IDF will soon be in a worse position what it experienced this week? Israel will need to exploit the hiatus it now has in a manner more efficient than whatever its enemy tries to do with the same interval.

IDF reservists waiting near the Gaza border this week. Credit: Nir Kafri

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