On November 10, 2012, Gaza terrorists fired a guided missile at an army jeep. All of the soldiers inside it were injured, two gravely. Over the ensuing days, Hamas rained rockets and missiles down on Israel, which responded with cautious airstrikes. On November 14, both then defense minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ostentatiously toured the northern front in the Golan Heights. The move cloaked the strike that followed: the targeted killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari and the elimination, by the air force, of the majority of Hamas’s long-range Fajr-5 rockets.
Those moves, made possible by meticulous and penetrating intelligence, rocked the Islamist organization back on its heels as the army began an eight-day operation, which, despite the 1,500 projectiles fired at Israel, many saw as a success.
The army will be hard-pressed to duplicate that sort of opening move this week in what now seems, after the launch of over 100 rockets and mortars at Israel in the past 24 hours, as a possible coming offensive in Gaza.
Partially this is because Hamas has goaded Israel into action – whether because of unpaid salaries, or hopes of fanning the flames of the unrest in Israel and the West Bank, or a need to stave off its rivals Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the assorted Salafi organizations, or in-house disagreements between its political and military wings, or as an expression of its alienation from Egypt and Iran (and those are just a few of the current theories).
There could still be surprises. Egyptian mediation could produce an agreement. It stands to reason, too, that Israel has learnt the lessons of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. It will likely, as in November 2012, first call up the reserves en masse before launching a major operation, giving the troops time to train and signaling to the other side that a major blow may soon fall.
But if Hamas is not to be deterred, then Israel, terribly, as a sovereign state, will be left with no choice but to respond to Hamas’s attacks and defend its citizens through military action. Blood will be shed. Innocents on both sides will pay a price.
The question, then, is not so much if Israel will respond to the barrage of rockets, but what shape that response will take; what sort of ambitions the government will have if it is forced into an operation in Gaza.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has called for the sort of operation that would enable reassertion of Israeli control over the Gaza Strip. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday refused to state his position over the air waves but likely advocates for a similar move. This, Brig. Gen. (res) Udi Dekel and Dr. Kobi Michael of the INSS wrote recently, would require a massive reserves call-up, unlike the one issued thus far for 1,500 soldiers total; a lengthy operation in the Gaza Strip, including ground troops; and a prolonged toll on the Israeli civilian population, which would be under fire for weeks if not months. The researchers put the economic toll of such an action at 15 billion shekels ($4.4 billion).
It would also leave Israel in charge of 1.5 million Palestinians.
Therefore, Dekel and Michael argued, “it is best to have a modest and attainable strategic objective.”
Maj. Gen. (ret) Amos Yadlin, the head of the INSS and former commander of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, called the notion of a re-occupation “a strategic mistake.”
Writing on his Facebook page on Sunday he advocated instead for an offensive that targets the military wing of Hamas, the organization’s leaders, its firepower, and its weapons-production capabilities.
Such an operation, Yadlin wrote, which would combine aerial fire power and limited ground actions in order to secure strategic locations, “might include damage to the fabric of life in Israel, the Israeli economy, and even fatalities. But it is necessary.”
Ideally, if forced into a limited war, the army will begin with a coordinated strike, probably against Hamas’s long-range rockets, which are less mobile than its leaders, who have probably gone underground. From there it will attempt to score maximum gains in minimum time.
But as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy said during a recent phone interview, one knows where a war starts, but never where it ends. “The fortunes of war,” he said in his native English, “are not pre-destined.”