Operation Protective Edge has created “significant deterrence” against Hamas and could result in “a fundamental change in the security situation” near the Gaza Strip, a senior officer on the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff said Monday.
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“The security situation [in communities] near Gaza will be much better on the morning after,” the officer said at a briefing for journalists. “There’s potential here to effect a fundamental change, which stems from the size of the blow [dealt Hamas], as well as from our ties with Egypt.”
The officer said the IDF expected to finish destroying all known Hamas tunnels within the next 24 hours, after which the government would decide whether to pull out the troops or leave them in the area.
A few options for further military activity are being considered, and the IDF is currently building protective areas inside the Strip, a few hundred meters from the border with Israel, in preparation for the possibility that troops might be ordered to stay.
The officer added that Hamas suffered significant damage during the IDF operation and is interested in ending the war, “but not with zero achievements from its standpoint.” The coming days will determine how the fighting will end, he said.
He stressed that Israel doesn’t want to destroy the Hamas government, because it “has an interest in having an 'address' in the Gaza Strip. The Somalia scenario, in which a state deteriorates into subgroups, can happen, but we don’t want it to happen.”
If Israel did want to decisively defeat Hamas, he added, the army would need seven to 10 days to reoccupy all of Gaza, then another year or two to “destroy the terrorist infrastructure.” But “that isn’t the task the IDF was given, and rightly so,” he said.
Military Intelligence believes the vast majority of Hamas’ cross-border tunnels have been destroyed. Apparently, the organization still has about one-third of the number of rockets it began the war with.
The senior officer noted that destruction of the tunnels wasn’t initially one of the operation’s goals, although it became one of the main objectives as the fighting progressed. He also said that only after embarking on the effort to destroy the subterranean structures did the army realize it couldn’t be done quickly. At that point, a decision was made that finishing the job took precedence over shortening the war.
Eight months ago, the IDF Southern Command was assigned the task of locating the attack tunnels Hamas had built under the border into Israel. But in practice, detailed knowledge about how to locate and destroy the tunnels was accumulated only once the fighting began. Initially, for instance, the army thought they could be bombed from the air, but it later discovered that this interfered with the process of tracing the tunnels' routes and finding all the shafts and secondary branches. In the end, however, a decision was made to bomb certain known shafts anyway, even if that made it harder to locate other such openings.
The officer said he expects the operation to “ensure a better window of time for a good situation” – i.e. a longer interval before the next round. Nevertheless, he added, the IDF expects that Hamas will indeed dig new tunnels into Israel and try to rebuild its arsenal.
Once the IDF has finished destroying the tunnels, it plans to let Palestinians who evacuated their homes to return them, pending army approval. The IDF recognizes that the displaced Palestinians are in a “difficult humanitarian situation,” and therefore, the officer said, it wants to “do everything possible to make life easier for the population ... We’re making every effort to avoid a humanitarian crisis.”
An MI officer acknowledged that Gaza “is beginning the reconstruction process from a much lower point than Lebanon in 2006,” after the Second Lebanon War.