IDF Wary of New Gaza Ground Op Even as Diplomacy Lags

Army still believes that reoccupying Gaza would cost hundreds of Israeli lives, take several weeks and would need to be followed by months-long systematic campaign of clearing out the terror networks.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Reserve soldiers returning to Israel from Gaza Strip.
Reserve soldiers returning to Israel from Gaza Strip.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hamas is now investing most of its energy in massive mortar-shell and short-range rocket barrages for two reasons: This is its most readily available offensive capability, and the organization sees Israel’s difficulty in defending itself against it.

Since the cease-fire collapsed last Tuesday, Hamas has been maintaining a pace of more than 120 rockets and mortars fired at Israel daily, the overwhelming majority of them at the Gaza border communities, a few at southern cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon and only a handful at the center of the country.

Military Intelligence believes that Hamas has slightly more than a hundred rockets with a range of more than 40 kilometers, which is why the organization is strictly limiting their use. Hamas is still trying to carry out deadly “quality attacks,” like infiltrating through an attack tunnel, kidnapping a soldier or firing anti-tank missiles. But it seems as if the group is having a hard time doing so. It’s possible that it has suffered from the series of attacks on its command structure. Six days after the attempt to assassinate him, there still is no sign of life from military commander Mohammed Deif. Israel has seen no signs that Deif has resumed any activity and it seems that his replacement is Marwan Issa, the No. 2 man in the group’s military wing, who previously was the intermediary between the armed forces and the group’s political leadership.

Mortar attacks should really be a localized problem, but the way the public and media discourse is going in Israel after nearly 50 days of attrition, the death of 4-year-old Daniel Tregerman and the paralysis of the Gaza-area communities have become the top priorities on the national agenda. There are around a dozen kibbutzim and moshavim within mortar range, around six kilometers from the border, and Israel hasn’t been dealing with them very well. Both the political and military leadership have been sending the residents mixed messages about the need to stay put during times of war. The state has not provided them with sufficient financial backing and the military has not succeeded in removing the attack threats.

The Hamas array of rocket launchers works almost on autopilot. To fire rockets one doesn’t need a very sophisticated structure of command and control in real time. The organization relies on a predetermined decentralized firing plan, arming that takes place below ground and rapid firing, after which the rocket and mortar launchers are quickly pulled back down underground. The air force’s success in hitting the launchers has been limited. Also weighing on the Israel Air Force, at least until recent days, were stringent orders that restricted attacks on rocket launchers located near dwellings.

After Operation Cast Lead, Hamas changed its method of operating its launching areas to further reduce the exposure of its operatives to air attacks while arming the launchers. Still, this is a pinpointed threat that probably could have been handled better, if necessary through limited ground incursions. It appears as if the Israel Defense Forces reacted too slowly under the general impression, since proved false, that the fighting was about to end.

On the political front, Hamas is being aggressively pressured to return to the Cairo talks, but this time under new conditions. Egypt is demanding that the parties commit to a permanent, open-ended cease-fire. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas supports this proposal, while Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, including Islamic Jihad, have also expressed willingness to accept it. Hamas disapproves because it understands that the proposal would limit its ability to pressure on Israel during the talks with the threat of renewed fire.

Israeli cabinet ministers have expressed frustration in recent days over the fact that the continued air strikes on Hamas are not forcing it back to Cairo. For now, the triumvirate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are maintaining the current policy though they’ve slightly intensified the pressure — continued assassination attempts, removing some of the open-fire restrictions and showcase attacks, like the destruction of a 12-story building in southern Gaza City on Saturday.

This mutual tug-of-war may continue all week, during which Hamas will seek another military achievement out of concern that returning to Cairo otherwise would be considered surrender. In the background is the growing frustration of the Gaza residents over the enormous humanitarian disaster that this war has caused. Parallel to efforts to resume the Cairo talks, there are two resolutions being initiated at the UN Security Council: a European one (whose wording Israel prefers) and an American one. It seems, however, that diplomatic efforts are moving very slowly, with no sense of urgency on either side. Israel may be the stronger power in this equation, but a war of attrition won’t necessarily serve it well. As time passes, its achievements are forgotten, be they the destruction of tunnels or the assassinations of senior enemy officials. Hamas, meanwhile, gains strength by perpetuating the myth of its resistance to the powerful IDF.

Netanyahu is paying a certain political price in blocking a massive new ground operation, taking flack from both the media and residents of the Gaza perimeter. The IDF’s General Staff is also suffering criticism. But the debate’s opening positions have not changed over the last month. The army still believes that reoccupying Gaza would cost hundreds of Israeli lives, take several weeks and would need to be followed by months-long systematic campaign of clearing out the terror networks. Even those who claim to support such a move are not backing it with full force. One gets the impression that some of the people who are pressing the army to reoccupy Gaza and bring Hamas to its knees will be the first to attack the government and General Staff when the military funerals resume.

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