A War of Attrition Is Not an Option in Gaza

You cannot deter terrorists. You must defeat them and disarm them.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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As the Gaza operation enters its eighth week, black smoke rises after an Israeli strike hits Gaza City on August 23, 2014.
As the Gaza operation enters its eighth week, black smoke rises after an Israeli strike hits Gaza City on August 23, 2014. Credit: AP
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

Operation Protective Edge, now about to enter its eighth week, is degenerating into a war of attrition between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is launching daily hundreds of rockets against Israel’s civilian population and the Israel Air Force is daily bombing Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, causing a significant number of civilian casualties among innocent victims who happen to be in the vicinity of the targets.

Some Israeli “experts” are voicing the opinion that a continuation of this war of attrition is preferable to the Israel Defense Forces launching a major operation to deliver a “knock-out” blow” to Hamas, and that in due time this war of attrition will come out in Israel’s favor. I would suggest that those who hold that opinion consider the wars of attrition in previous years of Israel’s military history.

Israel’s first war of attrition was imposed on it by Arab militias during the six months following the United Nations partition resolution of November 29, 1947. It was followed by a full-scale war when the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked Israel on May 15, 1948. During the six months of the war of attrition the Jewish community was literally fighting for its life, while desperately preparing itself to repel the expected invasion of the Arab armies. The casualty toll among Jewish civilians numbered in the thousands and it took the IDF victories to put an end to Arab aggression.

The second war of attrition occurred in the wake of the Six-Day War and was fought mainly along the Suez Canal between Egypt and Israel between March 1969 and August 1970. The IDF lost close to 600 soldiers during that period. Finally, Israel and Egypt agreed to a cease-fire based on a plan proposed by United States Secretary of State William Rogers. The War of Attrition was a prelude to the Yom Kippur War. It was Israel’s victory in that war that put an end to decades of belligerency between Egypt and Israel.

The War of Attrition was a very difficult period for Israel. The casualty toll was large and the extended period of fighting placed a great strain on Israel’s economy. The inevitable conclusion is that if Israel has to go to war, it should, if at all possible, be a short war.

Now we are seemingly mired in another war of attrition. Unlike the previous one, the “front lines” are being manned not by the soldiers of the IDF but mainly by the civilian population living in the western Negev. Although they deserve great praise for their steadfastness during the past seven weeks, it clearly cannot be a burden that they should continue to shoulder for an extended period of time. A continuation of this war of attrition cannot be considered to be a reasonable option for Israel.

Hopefully the lesson has finally been learned that you cannot deter terrorist organizations – not Al-Qaida, not Islamic State and not Hamas. And all theories to the contrary, not even Hezbollah. Periods of quiet are simply used by these terrorists to prepare themselves for the next round. You cannot deter the individual terrorist and you cannot deter the organization that sent him. You have to defeat them and disarm them.

Three things should therefore be clear: You cannot deter terrorists, you cannot defeat them only by attacks from the air, and you should not engage them in a war of attrition.

If it is decided not to open a ground offensive in order to defeat Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the only option left is to concede to enough of their demands so that they will agree to a cease-fire. If that is the option chosen it should be clear that the period of the cease-fire will be used by Hamas to prepare for the next round of attacks against Israel. Nobody is going to disarm Hamas – not the UN, not Egypt and not the Palestinian Authority. The cease-fire will simply set the stage for the next round of fighting.

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