On the 22nd day of the war in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Air Force intensified its bombardments, hitting Hamas targets in spots close to densely populated areas, like the heart of Gaza City. There is obviously a link between these powerful attacks and the death of 10 soldiers the previous day in three separate incidents.
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This escalation, however, does not point to a dramatic shift in the Israel Defense Forces’ troop deployment policy. The restrained tone of the press conference Monday evening given by the prime minister, defense minster and chief of staff was no coincidence. At the top they understand that wars have days in which tactical errors result in losses, but the state must absorb them and stick to its strategy, assuming it still believes the strategy is correct.
One can state with caution that Israel seems to be looking to end the operation within a few days, assuming Hamas doesn’t screw up its plans.
The aim is to complete the mapping and destruction of the terror tunnels to the degree possible and remove IDF forces from the Strip. On the one hand, the political echelon fears further entanglement and additional international criticism; on the other hand it doesn’t want to be perceived as having given up too soon, which could exact a high price in political and public support.
In recent days, senior intelligence, political, and military officials have repeatedly made two claims. The first is that the damage the IDF has inflicted on Hamas is incredible. The group has lost military assets and will suffer politically as well, because the Gaza population will hold it responsible for the consequences of the third failed campaign against Israel in five-and-a-half years.
The second is that Hamas is desperate for a cease-fire. The leaders, generals, and intelligence people seem to agree that the public doesn’t yet understand the depth of the blow delivered to Hamas. Its scope and ramifications, they say, will become clear only after the dust settles.
The leaders, generals, and intelligence people, of course, have information that isn’t available to us. But from what we can see at this point, this second assessment doesn’t ring true. Time after time external mediators have proposed cease-fires, but the organization either rejects them or violates them and then adds new demands.
Hamas doesn’t seem to have a discipline problem, probably because most of its military arm’s command mechanisms are still functioning. The impression is that Hamas is stubbornly holding out for the terms it deems critical, especially given the price it has paid for initiating the hostilities. Without achieving a significant easing of the blockade on the Strip, it will have a hard time compromising.
Israel at this point has three options. The first is to declare a cease-fire with no agreement, which is essentially what happened at the end of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. This approach, spearheaded at the time by Tzipi Livni, holds that a strong deterrent action is enough to keep the peace. The second option is to exit via some sort of agreement, even if it’s general, vague and unsigned. That’s what Israel did, aided by Egyptian mediation, after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.
The third option is to continue dealing powerful blows to Hamas in the hope that this will provide an even stronger deterrent, or even Hamas’ surrender. But this would probably be possible only by greatly expanding the ground operation, which the government is afraid to do. In any case, the army has not yet positioned the forces that would presumably be needed to execute such a mission.
As the war drags on and the losses mount, it’s no surprise that there are signs of friction between the political and military echelons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were not pleased by a briefing given this week in which a senior officer said that the prime minister had received a full report on the tunnel threat in June 2013. Indeed, questions about who knew what, and when, about the tunnels will be the focus of political and intelligence clashes once the fighting is over.
Looming in the background is another skirmish – this one over the defense budget. The IDF has estimated the costs of the operation at nearly 5 billion shekels ($1.46 billion). Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is already leveraging the attack on the obsolete armored personnel carrier, in which seven Golani soldiers were killed, to ask for an upgrade of all the army’s APCs.
The incidents on Monday raise some serious questions about the military’s judgment. The mortar fire that killed four Armored Corps soldiers near the border could have just as easily hit the hundreds of civilians who are streaming to the area every day, circumventing the Military Police checkpoints with ease.
When families are seen picnicking at the Black Arrow Memorial near Kfar Aza, only a few hundred meters from a border where battles are raging, it seems that something is lacking in the military’s control over events. This is directly related to the use of a deficiently armored APC and the attacks on two forward command patrols traveling in unprotected jeeps near the border, attacks that cost the lives of six fighters and officers.
Despite many achievements that the army brass can point to, the current war in Gaza reveals once again the necessity of a comprehensive reorganization of the military. The training of forces, the equipment in use, combat doctrine, and operational plans — all will need to be thoroughly investigated when the hostilities are over.