The Israeli army is fighting a war in the service of a ceasefire. It is, like its leaders, very cerebral. But is it getting the job done?
The rationale, at the onset, was this: If the aerial strikes do not prevail, as they did last time, Israel will address the threat of tunnels, unearthing the strategic channels dug by Hamas. As the organization sees its labor demolished, as the rocket stores are depleted, as the troops draw closer to the heart of Gaza, Hamas will wait until the PR conditions are ripe and, as is its custom, dress defeat in the gowns of victory.
Understanding the risks of each further escalation, though, the IDF and the government built an exit ramp into each stage of the operation.
Stage One: the aerial campaign. The thinking was as follows: The bombing will be dreadful. It may not get too many operatives, and certainly not many senior ones, and it will not address the threat of the tunnels, but it will deplete some of the Hamas rocket stores and, when this terrible season of killing is over, it will leave a mark on the landscape and the psyche of the people, who will not again soon allow their leaders to invite such destruction.
The army thinks of this as the Dahiyeh doctrine on account of the Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut that was pounded [and promptly re-built with Iranian cash] during [and directly after] the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Since then, Hezbollah has been largely deterred from acting along the Lebanon border.
An F-16 pilot and squadron commander who has flown many sorties over Gaza during this conflict said in a phone interview, during the aerial stage of the war, that he did not envy Hamas leaders when they emerged from their bunkers and had to explain to their people what has transpired.
In November 2012 this sufficed. The sight of thousands of troops amassed on the border, along with the heavy losses already inflicted, along with other regional geo-political considerations, brought Hamas to the table after eight days of violence.
This time, though, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intimated on Sunday, Israel’s leadership accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal with the understanding that Hamas would likely not use the first exit ramp.
Stage two: the tunnels. These underground passages across the border and into Israel are a strategic threat. Each one carries with it the potential for a mega-attack. Israel has spent the past five days, ever since the ground stage began, trying to eradicate that threat. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Sunday that “the lion’s share” of cross-border tunnels would be detected and demolished within the coming two to three days.
Which is to say, there is another exit ramp in the not-too-distant future.
If Hamas opts to take it, and a deal is reached – one that keeps terrorists and operatives away from the fence; makes it impossible to tunnel into Israel again; and offers some carrots in the form of civilian aid, greater access to Egypt through Rafah and increased flow of goods into the Strip, alongside a ceasefire agreement; — then the operational action, despite the loss of 25 Israeli soldiers’ lives at time of writing, will have been a success.
Of course, there will be some questions asked. For instance about the wisdom of sending troops into battle – seven of whom were killed – in an M-113 armed personnel carrier, which was made in the 60s and already debuted with the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. Even the M-113 Wikipedia page in Hebrew notes, straight off, that “today the APC is considered to have insufficient protection: its hull is made of aluminum…”
When the dust settles over Shejaiya, Israel will also have to make sure the civilian death toll is in line with its values, on the one hand [there is currently not information to know], and that the approach into the Hamas stronghold in the Gaza City neighborhood, on the other, was not too telegraphed, too obvious to the heavily armed Hamas operatives.
But what if Hamas, pleased with its bloody accomplishments, speeds past the next exit ramp as well? What if it believes that Israel has no intention of toppling its rule and that, as Udi Dekel and Shlomo Brom wrote for the INSS think tank on Monday, “the only advantage Hamas has over Israel is patience and endurance.”
In that case, which still seems unlikely, Israel will advance, somewhat fatigued, deeper into Gaza, and it will have to project that it has cast aside the cerebral approach.
As former general and national security adviser Uzi Dayan said early in this conflict, when advocating for a two-division push deep into Gaza at the onset, “I don’t dictate who will replace Hamas and I don’t care. It’s not strategically important.”
Instead, he said, while speaking to a group of journalists in a safe room in Sderot, “what’s important is that he knows that whoever will mess with Israel will pay for it.”