The Hamas Challenge and Israel's Wasted Years

When the rockets stop falling and the fighter jets stop bombing, we will have to rethink the threats we face.

Ari Shavit
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Hamas chief Khaled Meshal, left, and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Credit: Reuters
Ari Shavit

It didn’t look good from the outset. That disturbing term, “operation,” was mentioned. That oft-repeated promise, that Hamas was in a panic. And the lack of a precise, decisive first strike.

In some ways, it resembled Israel’s part in the 1991 Gulf War: In the first week, there were no casualties or serious damage, even though Israeli sovereignty was violated. In other ways, it resembled the 2006 Second Lebanon War: the illusion that there was time, the feeling that delay was possible, the inability to decide whether to stop or escalate.

And so, very slowly, the question marks have come. Were we promised that Hamas has been deterred? It has not been deterred. Were we promised that the army had an answer? The answer is incomplete. There is no schoolbook solution, no starting the fighting in one fell swoop. Without the ability to strike properly from the air, the inner cabinet is caught on the horns of the dilemma: either a (dangerous) ground incursion or a fragile and problematic cease-fire agreement.

A protective edge exists, but the picture is clear: A small, poor and zealous terror organization has successfully challenged the all-powerful Israel Defense Forces. Gaza’s underground low-tech has taken on Israeli high-tech, for the long haul. It’s not good, not good enough.

The moral aspect is unequivocal: Hamas is a fascist religious movement (that oppresses women, Christians and gays) that attacked the State of Israel one fine day.

The Gaza Strip is a piece of land with no Israeli settlements, checkpoints or occupying army, so there is no justification for the brutal attacks on Israel’s civilian population. But the strategic issue is much more complex.

Israel did not take advantage of the years of calm to advance the peace process or to build a solid foundation of international legitimacy. It did not use the years of prosperity to give the army the support and resources it needed. Complacent Israel of the 2000s did not properly prepare for war with those who sought its destruction.

So far, the big accomplishments have been defensive ones. Iron Dome’s engineers deserve the Nobel Peace Prize (if not for their brilliant creativity, dozens of Israeli civilians would have died, and Israel would be up to its neck in Rafah and Khan Yunis).

Israeli society deserves the Victoria Cross (if not for its quiet heroism, there would already be a regional war here). The army deserves the highest praise for stopping the Palestinian naval commandos, preventing a disaster in the tunnel at Kerem Shalom and thwarting Hamas’ attempts to hit the home front. But where is the elegant Israeli answer to the challenge of the asymmetrical battlefield?

It pains us to say it, but we must be honest: Barack Obama’s United States would never accept Al-Qaida rocket fire on Miami Beach, Washington, D.C. or New York City. David Cameron’s Britain would never accept a terror attack in Manchester, Birmingham or London. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is compelled to accept ongoing rocket fire on Ashkelon, Ashdod, Rehovot, Tel Aviv and Zichron Yaakov. And it does so not to be ingratiating, but because it does not know how to defeat Hamas without sinking into the quagmire of the Gaza Strip.

Our startup nation has still not managed to invent an application that will give us a quick victory in the third intifada.

A cautious Netanyahu is better than a hasty Netanyahu. The profound, level-headed judgment of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are better than the diabolical haste of former Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

We must appreciate the devoted work that the army is doing and make every effort to put boots on the ground without getting entangled in large-scale ground warfare on cursed soil.

But on the tenth day of the fighting, we must admit that after years of being complacent and drowsy, we are challenged. When the rockets stop falling and the fighter jets stop bombing, we will have to rethink the threats we face.