Israel’s three big military operations since it left Gaza – Cast Lead in 2008-09, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014 – haven’t really changed the balance of power with Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces’ mission will remain the same if another round breaks out. Israel will strive to cause enough damage to restore its deterrence of Hamas in the hope of “extending the intervals” between fighting, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu puts it.
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Israeli governments have been dragged into these operations by both a Hamas provocation and criticism of deteriorating security at home. It seems no coincidence that two prime ministers, Ehud Olmert in 2008 and Netanyahu in 2012, went to war in Gaza shortly before an election. And Netanyahu didn’t wait long after Protective Edge – a war for which he was criticized – to call an election.
The main change wasn’t brought on by Israel. In fact, it wasn’t caused by a war. The 2013 coup in Egypt brought the generals back to power. The new rulers got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and entirely changed the generals’ approach to Hamas, which they see as an offshoot of their loathed domestic rivals.
The new policy has been seen in the all-but-permanent closure of the Rafah crossing, and in systematic efforts to destroy the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. These two steps tightened the siege on the Strip and suffocated Hamas economically, helping push the group toward a clash with Israel in the summer of 2014.
Before that, on the eve of the 2005 Gaza pullout, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon deliberated whether to leave an Israeli presence on the Philadelphi Route between the Strip and Sinai. Sharon ultimately decided to withdraw Israeli forces to ensure full international support for the disengagement. This meant that, under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s back door was open to Hamas.
So each time Israel damaged Hamas’ military capabilities, the group’s leaders knew that soon enough it could replenish most of its arsenal by smuggling arms from Iran without Egypt getting in the way. During Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09, Israel briefly considered a broader move that would include taking over the Philadelphi Route, but it ruled this out for fear of becoming entangled in a drawn-out, costly conflict.
After Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the situation is completely different. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s Egypt is dealing with smuggling tunnels at Rafah better than the Israelis ever did, so Hamas can’t fully replenish its rocket stockpile. The Iranians, whose ties with Hamas have been improving, are still having trouble transferring new rockets to the Strip, forcing the group to rely on homemade rockets not as precise or destructive.
Still, Hamas has other means of attack, like cross-border tunnels and a massive stock of mortar shells to target Israeli border towns. And there’s an assortment of wild cards such as naval commandos and drones.
The tunnels are the most important, however, because the underground transfer of weapons neutralizes much of the IDF’s advantage. The number-one advantage is the combination of air power, precise intelligence and advanced technology.
The recent discovery of a tunnel near Kibbutz Holit reflects an Israeli effort to quash the tunnel threat altogether. But despite Netanyahu’s declarations, the defense industry’s technological solution is incomplete, so it hasn’t been fully implemented.
His statements, and the IDF’s assessment that the technological response to the tunnels will only be finished in two years, could prove damaging. They challenge Hamas to take to the offensive while letting the group know how much time it has before this option is eliminated.