Netanyahu's Hamas Dilemma: Deterrence or Decisive Victory?

After Kerry truce initiative fiasco, the Israeli PM and his counterparts in Cairo and Ramallah likely have little faith in U.S. efforts to achieve a truce.

Israeli soldiers prepare armoured personnel carriers (APCs) at a staging area outside north Gaza.
Israeli soldiers prepare armoured personnel carriers (APCs) at a staging area outside the northern Gaza Strip July 27, 2014. Reuters

Several unsuccessful attempts were made Sunday to effect a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Despite the continued fighting, however, there has been a significant reduction in the volume of rocket fire on Israel and, as a consequence, in Israel Air Force activity.

Toward evening Sunday, Israel announced a temporary return to the “quiet for quiet” formula, something that wasn’t successful earlier this month with the outbreak of the hostilities.

The publication in Haaretz of the text of the Kerry cease-fire initiative makes it clear why the proposal was unacceptable to Israel: It did not even allow the Israel Defense Forces to continue blowing up tunnels in the narrow strip it has established west of the security fence. Without such agreement, it is impossible to complete what both the army and the security cabinet have described as the prime mission of the ground operation: dealing with the tunnels that have been dug into Israeli territory. Continuation of the status quo would enable the IDF to complete that mission.

Also on Sunday, the defense minister and chief of staff revised their initial estimate and said that they expected the tunnel mission to be completed within a number of days. The IDF is already describing the destruction of the tunnels as a “massive achievement” and as justification for the entire ground operation.

But that claim needs to be taken with a requisite amount of caution. Has the tunnel danger really been eradicated? Is it possible to tell the members of kibbutzim in the Gaza area that they can return to their homes with a feeling of total security?

The actions of the Obama administration in recent days and the publication of the details of the Kerry initiative have caused frustration at the puzzling behavior of Washington – yet again – on the part of many. It’s possible to assume with a good deal of confidence that the American mediation efforts are not seen in a more positive light in Cairo and Ramallah than they are in Jerusalem.

The Egyptians believe that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry complicated their negotiating attempts unnecessarily when he brought Qatar and Turkey into the picture (he even had them participate in the Paris talks on Sunday alongside representatives of the European Union, but without Egypt, Israel or the Palestinian Authority present).

That only reinforces the suspicion in Egypt that the U.S. is deliberately undermining the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and continuing its secret love affair with the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

If there is any chance of a temporary lull in the fighting, it apparently won’t come from the American initiative. Instead, it is likely to be connected to the Id al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, and the enormous damage caused by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Jerusalem is hoping that a lull at this stage, during which the Palestinian public will begin the task of reconstruction, will make it difficult for Hamas to renew hostilities.

Israeli intelligence believes that the Islamist organization’s military capacity has been eroded and that it is likely to rein in its more militant members now. There are even those who say that the disaster of the war vis-a-vis the Palestinians signals the beginning of serious political problems for Hamas; that the destruction that has been sown will give rise to real, popular anger against the organization in the Strip, and could well threaten its hold on power in the long run.

The IDF brigade commanders whose troops are fighting in Gaza have presented a similar picture to the defense minister and chief of staff: The army's forward positions in Gaza have stabilized; Hamas fighters have retreated and the destruction of the tunnels is mostly continuing as planned, despite the losses that Hamas inflicts on the IDF on a daily basis.

Some of the brigade commanders have even recommended significant expansion of the operation in their sectors, arguing that it is possible to inflict far greater damage on the Hamas infrastructure. The General Staff, on the other hand, seems to prefer bringing the operation to a close once the tunnels have been dealt with, because a large offensive operation will entail a strategic redeployment and the introduction of additional forces.

In approaching this milestone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded his consultative circle to include a number of reserve generals. One of the arguments Netanyahu hears is that the army’s accomplishments to date are an insufficient basis for ensuring long-term deterrence in Gaza, despite the damage to the tunnels and to built-up areas in neighborhoods and villages bordering on the fence.

According to this argument, Hamas has other centers of gravity that remain intact, and pressure on them – assuming the attempts to achieve a long-term case-fire fail – will lead to far better results for Israel.

The opposing view, which has been represented by the defense minister and chief of staff until now, holds that the Gaza operation is, by definition, a deterrent exercise, rather than a decisive game-changer. The IDF is capable of penetrating the depths of Hamas territory, but it will be accompanied by a very high number of casualties, because the underground facilities of the organization in the heart of the Strip will be much more difficult to deal with than what has been experienced to date.

It’s interesting to note that among the reserve generals calling on Netanyahu to increase the military pressure on Hamas and to consider a larger ground operation are those who opted for restraint and caution during decisive moments in their own careers. That said, and despite the optimism of military intelligence, there is no evidence as yet that Hamas has lost the will to fight. The army is at the very least obliged to prepare seriously for the possibility that it will be called on to undertake an expanded ground operation.

The action against the tunnels, despite the many units involved and the heavy fighting this has entailed, does not constitute that sort of larger operation, as testified to by the relatively short distance the forces have advanced into the depths of the Strip.

The short lulls have enabled the foreign media to document in detail and for the first time the destruction caused by the IDF. Much of the damage was caused by the air force’s one-ton munitions, which totally demolished many hundreds of homes.

Meanwhile, the army is already preparing for the legal implications of the period following the war. A special team is conducting preliminary investigations of exceptional events, while legal experts are preparing for the possibility that left-wing international groups may bring legal claims against officers outside the country, on the grounds that they committed war crimes.

But even in the light of the massive destruction and the deaths of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians in IDF attacks, it is impossible to ignore what awaits the forces when they enter the outskirts of the built-up areas of Gaza. Soldiers who have emerged from the arena of fighting for short breaks describe how Hamas has booby-trapped just about every possible site.

For example, in sweeps by the Givati Brigade of the village of Khuza'a, which is near Khan Yunis and has been heavily damaged in the fighting, the soldiers came across three booby-trapped buildings close to each other, along one side of a road. In one of the windows, they found a video camera that was filming the advance of the soldiers and sending the images to Hamas in the rear.

During the fighting, ground commanders have been heard on several occasions urging pilots to attack Hamas positions with heavy munitions before the soldiers are sent in to sweep the areas.