When the ground operation in the Gaza Strip began on July 17, Israel’s military clock was running behind the diplomatic clock. The Israel Defense Forces thought they had a limited amount of time to achieve the operation’s declared goal of dealing with the attack tunnels along the Gaza-Israel border. Army planners predicted this would take a few days, and that soon afterward, diplomatic efforts would produce a permanent cease-fire.
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Now, the situation has been reversed: The IDF says it will finish the job of locating and destroying the tunnels near the border in another few days, but in the diplomatic arena, the Egyptian mediators don’t seem to be in any hurry. Thus, the way things looked Thursday night, early next week Israel will have to either decide to leave Gaza without an agreement (while warning that continued rocket fire will be answered with massive airstrikes), or keep its forces in the Strip until a deal is reached in Cairo. The main danger now lies in the IDF’s static deployment in Gaza, and especially Hamas’ efforts to kidnap a soldier before the troops withdraw.
If there is one analogy that outrages the commanders of Operation Protective Edge, it’s the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Anyone who suggests such a comparison will be met with a flood of learned explanations why there’s absolutely no resemblance. And in truth, the IDF has improved in several ways: Its troops are better trained than they were eight years ago; cooperation between the infantry, armored and engineering corps is better; the air force’s offensive capabilities and support for the ground forces have gone up a grade; Military Intelligence has risen two or three grades in supplying prompt intelligence to the troops; and the troops are less confused and much more comfortable with the operation’s goals.
Nevertheless, these two wars have something in common that differs from other, shorter operations in Gaza in 2009 and 2012: They have prompted a recognition that Israel’s security challenges are gradually becoming more complex, despite the reduced threat of conventional war against countries fielding regular armies.
Not so tolerable
It’s no longer possible to see the periodic bouts of fighting in Gaza as constituting a relatively tolerable level of violence (for anyone who isn’t living in the south or fighting in the Strip). These are wars that significantly affected Israel’s security and economy, and given the fundamental enmity of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, they’re likely to recur periodically. It’s also impossible to ignore the likely impact of the vast military power Israel has employed on the next generation of Palestinians in Gaza.
The time between wars depends on the amount of damage the fighting does and how much deterrence it achieves. But deterrence isn’t an exact science. Even those who now boast of how the 2006 war deterred Hezbollah must remember that other factors also contributed to the past eight years of quiet in the north: Israel’s fear of the damage Hezbollah’s rockets could wreak on it, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and Iran’s desire to preserve Hezbollah’s capabilities so that they could be unleashed if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Is there a complete military solution to the threat posed by Hamas? Anyone who advocates reoccupying Gaza should take note that the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff all oppose this idea, and their opposition presumably stems not only from fear of public criticism if it goes wrong, but also from an understanding of the complexity of the task. Thus, for now, it seems that what Moshe Dayan said about Gaza in his famous eulogy for Roi Rutenberg in 1956 still holds: Until proven otherwise, the conflict with Hamas is “the fate of our generation,” and therefore, “our life’s choice” must be to arm and prepare ourselves for this threat.
This means we shouldn’t buy the illusion of absolute victory politicians and senior officers will try to sell us once the IDF leaves Gaza. On the war’s plus side are the Iron Dome system’s rocket interception capabilities, the destruction of the tunnels, the bravery and self-sacrifice of our soldiers and officers, and the understanding the moderate Arab camp displayed for Israel’s battle against Hamas. On the minus side are the worsening rift with the Obama administration, the failure to deal with the tunnel threat earlier, and a renewed understanding of the limits of military force in dealing with an enemy that hides among the civilian population.
Thus the IDF will have to learn the necessary lessons. As one former senior officer said Thursday, there’s still a worrying gap between the training and equipment the state gives its soldiers and the heroism they demonstrate in battle.
The commander of an infantry brigade fighting in Gaza was asked on Thursday about his feelings after two weeks of battle. “We feel we’re part of a victorious army,” he answered. “They gave us a mission and we carried it out in full.”
Then, responding to a follow-up question about the government’s conduct of the war, the officer replied, “I execute the state’s decisions; I don’t dictate to the state.”
Nevertheless, the behavior of some government ministers during this war has provided cause for concern. While the opposition has been trying to behave responsibly, several ministers, including Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa’ar, Yair Shamir and Avigdor Lieberman, have been vying over who could make the most aggressive statements. It’s hard to understand how a minister can attack senior officers during wartime and charge that their only desire is to return home safely. Such conduct is more suited to a dinner-table discussion than to the responsibility expected of a minister in wartime.
At bottom, this war will be judged – assuming it indeed ends next week – to a large extent on how long a respite it produces until the next war. That obviously depends on deterrence, but also on how hard it is for Hamas to rearm (which will primarily depend on Egyptian pressure) and on whether restrictions at the border crossings are eased in a way that mitigate against future clashes.
Nevertheless, there may be one more lesson for the future here: The Third Lebanon War is liable to be a larger-scale, even more difficult version of the current war in Gaza. And Israel would do well to prepare itself for this fact in time.