Can Israel Really Beat Hamas or Hezbollah?

If there’s no proven solution for tunnels and an increasing number of rockets, Israelis might have to settle for another bleak draw after the next conflict.

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Israeli soldiers at the ready.
Israeli soldiers at the ready. Credit: Amir Cohen

The report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on the government’s failures during the 2014 Gaza war is expected to be released (no promises) at the end of this month, once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finishes his latest round of globe-trotting.

The report will certainly draw a great deal of interest over the conflict’s three main aspects: the security cabinet’s flawed functioning during the fighting, defense officials’ lack of preparedness regarding Hamas’ tunnels from Gaza, and the intelligence gaps regarding the overall threat from the Strip.

Many drafts of the report have already been provided to officials mentioned in the document, followed by leaks to the media. On the political side, the report will provide more ammunition in the right-wing battle between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, given the possibility that the governing coalition may collapse because of the police’s corruption investigations into Netanyahu.

But the report won’t discuss, and Shapira never intended for it to discuss, the central issue that should interest Israelis. If more conflicts are expected in the future with groups shooting rockets at Israeli civilians from their own civilian areas, Israel must know that it can end such a conflict to its advantage.

For their own political purposes, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett are emphasizing their demands that the next campaign end with a decisive victory over Hamas and Hezbollah. But it’s better to recognize reality without being steered by their conclusions, and even without discussing what constitutes a decisive victory against an organization that’s not a country. And the reality is this: For over a decade (and some say many decades), the Israel Defense Forces has not been able to end such an operation with a clear victory.

The second intifada ended somewhere around the summer of 2005 with Israel blocking the suicide-bombing campaign led by Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. This battle cost the Israelis dearly more than 1,000 killed and widened the political split over the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also led then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate, under international pressure and terrorist attacks, all the settlements in Gaza and a few in the northern West Bank.

Rocky ground offensive

At the same time, the success in the fight against Palestinian terrorism helped the IDF convince itself that it was well prepared for the next conflict. When that came just a year later, in the summer of 2006 in Lebanon, this assumption proved wrong. Despite the heavy damage the IDF caused to Hezbollah, it still had a hard time carrying out its (half-baked) plans to maneuver on the ground in southern Lebanon, or to quash the Katyusha rocket fire during the war.

A Lebanese flag at the border fence in the north, August 2016. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Two and a half years later, with a new chief of staff and better spokespeople (but still with Ehud Olmert as prime minister), the IDF set out on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the first of three such operations in the Strip. Here too Hamas suffered a severe blow, but Israel’s ground maneuvers were very limited, and the main expectation of commanders was to keep casualty numbers low.

The operation was sold to the public as a success, as a complete correction for the damage of the Second Lebanon War. In practice, even though the IDF had begun training rigorously again and preparing for battle in an organized way, it never faced a real trial in Gaza.

In November 2012, with Netanyahu prime minister and Ehud Barak defense minister, Israel sufficed with a week-long air campaign over Gaza Operation Pillar of Defense. There was no ground offensive.

Once again, even though Hamas took some hits the killing of its military chief Ahmed Jabari and the destruction of most of its Iranian-made Fajr rockets the campaign was far from a defeat as far as Hamas was concerned. With Egyptian mediation, Israel’s agreement to narrow the security corridor on the Gaza side of the border to 100 meters from 500 meters made it much harder for the IDF to identify Hamas’ digging of attack tunnels into Israel.

This was a development that Hamas exploited well during the 2014 Gaza war. Then too results were mixed, to say the least. Hamas may not have achieved any of its goals like lifting the blockade on Gaza or building a port, but Israel fought Hamas for 51 days and didn’t destroy its rocket formations. And the damage to the attack-tunnels project was only temporary. Operation Protective Edge, similar to its two predecessors, ended in a bleak draw.

Israeli technology

The General Staff knows all this quite well. In a meeting led by then-Chief of Staff Benny Gantz immediately after the 2014 Gaza war, a number of generals severely criticized the IDF’s functioning during the war. Others who had similar thoughts remained silent.

The air force’s inquiry into the war admitted difficulties in suppressing the rocket threat. And a separate General Staff inquiry into the tunnels affair found serious failures in the IDF’s handling of that issue over the years.

As for the tunnels, it seems the IDF has taken actions that will somewhat improve Israel’s preparedness. The first is an engineering and technological barrier against the tunnels at the Gaza border fence; the effectiveness of this effort has not yet been proved. The IDF has also developed a methodology for fighting the threat. It has also trained the relevant units and tripled the size of the Yahalom combat engineering unit, which heads operations against the tunnels.

In comparison, the situation regarding rocket attacks is far from encouraging. The main problem concerns the possibility of an unexpected war with Hezbollah in the north. Recent estimates put Hezbollah’s rocket-and-missile arsenal at 80,000, which would be a challenge for the IDF’s interception batteries.

At the end of last year the David’s Sling system entered service as a medium-range layer against rockets and missiles – between the Iron Dome and the Arrow. Still, the defensive response is not complete. It’s reasonable to assume that Israel has fewer interceptor missiles than Hezbollah has rockets, and the missiles’ high cost means they can’t be produced in unlimited numbers.

Defense officials will have to strictly manage the inventory in order to handle a shock attack by Hezbollah, which presumably would include the firing of over 1,000 missiles and rockets daily at the Israeli home front during a war. The opening blow would probably even be heavier.

A chance for deterrence

Israel has developed an impressive defense against the Gaza rocket threat; Iron Dome batteries achieved a 90 percent success rate in the 2014 Gaza war. But the challenge from Lebanon is much greater and can’t be compared to the Strip.

A war with Hezbollah would reap a great number of casualties and badly damage infrastructure in the north and center of the country, even if the damage caused to Hezbollah and Lebanon was much greater. Under such circumstances, the public would put great pressure on the government and military to use disproportionate force against Hezbollah.

Such a situation, however, would suffer the side effect of international criticism as happened with the Goldstone Report after the 2008-09 Gaza war. And this could lead to tension with Russia too, which at least for now sees Hezbollah as part of its alliance supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Hamas, has found a solution that sidesteps Israel’s advantage in precision firepower, technology and intelligence: Its expanded ability to hit the Israeli home front.

Israel has its own theoretical solutions, from the so-called Dahiya Doctrine, developed by the current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot back in 2008 when he headed the Northern Command. This doctrine, named after the neighborhood housing Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Beirut, means the widespread destruction of Hezbollah's infrastructure – and that of the Lebanese state too.

It's not clear what approach the Israeli government would adopt when the time came, and how it would be carried out in practice. The positive side is that the strategic equilibrium in which each side is aware of the damage the other side could cause may actually help put off the next war.

Israel’s awareness that it could become embroiled in a Lebanese quagmire has reined in the politicians’ adventurous impulses. It has left a war with Hezbollah as only an option of last resort.     

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