When Golani Brigade fighters suffered multiple losses during a fierce battle with Hamas in Gaza City’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood on July 20, the air force hastened to the rescue. Within 50 minutes, planes had struck 126 targets, most with one-ton bombs. With permission, the pilots dropped some of these bombs less than 250 meters (800 feet) from the ground troops, a risk that shocked veteran pilots when they heard about it later. Yet not one soldier was hurt.
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Throughout the operation in Gaza, cooperation between the ground forces and the air force was much closer than it was in the past. There was no repeat of the charges leveled during the Second Lebanon War of 2006, that the air force had neglected the ground troops.
The planes were at little risk from anti-aircraft fire; the main problem was trying to minimize civilian casualties while bombing targets located in dense urban areas. This challenge only grew tougher as the fighting progressed, since as the ground troops advanced deeper into these built-up areas, the dangers they faced escalated.
Aerial bombing is the first stage of every major Israeli military operation. Preparing for ground maneuvers takes longer, for two reasons.
The first has to do with decision-making. It doesn’t matter how many times the politicians and generals tell us they have learned from past mistakes and know the IDF has no time to waste; they will still always agonize over whether to send in ground troops and risk the attendant casualties. The second is the time needed to organize. While air force planes can take off within minutes, ground forces have to travel to the staging area, be issued necessary equipment and be briefed on operational plans. That’s true even for regular troops, and doubly so for reservists.
The IDF’s initial assumption was that a series of gradually escalating strikes on Hamas assets would reduce its desire to fight and spur it to quickly accept a cease-fire. That assumption didn’t exactly work out.
In part, this could be due to the differences between Gaza and Lebanon, which is the principle theater for which the IDF has prepared. Both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have bigger assets to lose: Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood, where Hezbollah is headquartered, and major civilian infrastructure like the Beirut airport, highways and power stations. Hamas’s assets in Gaza are much smaller, and unlike in Lebanon, there’s no chance of driving a wedge between it and the government, because Hamas is the government. Still, it’s possible that the destruction Gaza suffered will help restrain Hamas from starting another war.
If another war breaks out with Hezbollah, the firepower the IDF used in Gaza will look tiny by comparison. A war in Lebanon would be more intensive from the outset: Nobody plans to start off by attacking empty buildings, as was done in Gaza. This is because Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is incomparably more advanced than that of Hamas. Its rockets are far more precise, carry much bigger warheads and are capable of striking anywhere in Israel, and it has more than 100,000 of them.
Facing such a threat, antimissile systems like Iron Dome will be less effective. The nine existing Iron Dome batteries were plenty to minimize the damage caused by rockets from Gaza. Dealing with Hezbollah’s rockets would require more batteries, as well as the Magic Wand system for intercepting medium-range missiles, which is still in development, and perhaps even the Arrow antimissile system for long-range missiles. The Israeli home front would suffer heavy damage, so the government wouldn’t be able to wait. It would have to respond harshly from the first moment.
The Second Lebanon War, and the preparations for a third, are the proper context in which to evaluate the war in Gaza. Despite all the differences, there are important similarities between Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2014: the hesitation over the operation’s direction, the fear of casualties in a ground operation, the fact that the war ended without a victory and the understanding that another round is possible. Moreover, it’s clear that Hezbollah is following events in the south and learning the lessons. If there’s one thing senior IDF officers agree on, it’s that Hezbollah and its Iranian advisers are good at studying, analyzing and drawing conclusions.
Whether Israel really hurt Hamas as badly as it claims and how much deterrence it has achieved will become clear only later. Meanwhile, it makes sense to assume that Hezbollah has also dug attack tunnels under the border, even if the IDF hasn’t yet found proof of this. After all, Hezbollah dug defensive tunnels very close to the border even before the 2006 war.
In April, Haaretz reported that Hezbollah seemed to be acting more aggressively than at any other point since 2006. The army journal Maarachot recently quoted an intelligence colonel as saying that when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatens to “conquer the Galilee,” this may reflect a plan to open the next war by an incursion into Israel. Given Israel’s experience in Gaza over the last month, it’s safe to assume that tunnels will also figure in any northern scenario.
With the cease-fire in Gaza apparently holding, a clear gap has emerged between the public’s feeling that Israel didn’t win and the pride senior officers involved in the fighting are taking in their troops’ achievements. It’s true that the soldiers fought well and completed their assigned mission of destroying the tunnels. But it would be a mistake to attach too much importance to this success. Ultimately, the IDF deployed 10 brigades for more than two weeks without advancing more than two or three kilometers from the border.
What is important now is for the army to focus on learning the war’s lessons. Unfortunately, the IDF often has trouble investigating itself: When senior officers’ careers are on the line, few are willing to be completely open. The blame-free inquiries used in the air force and some other elite units don’t seem to have penetrated to the rest of the army.
After the Second Lebanon War, the IDF appointed more than 50 inquiry committees. But the quality of the results varied widely, and some key inquiries were never completed at all.
Sober reflection indicates that the capabilities the army displayed against Hamas will need an upgrade if better results are to be obtained against Hezbollah. Even if the Shi’ite organization now seems preoccupied with other fronts – Lebanon’s own problems, the Syrian civil war and, most recently, the Islamic State’s seizure of parts of Iraq from the Shi’ite-led government – events can change suddenly. After all, few people predicted that the IDF would spend this summer intercepting rockets and hunting tunnels in Gaza.