Setting out on Operation Pillar of Defense last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it was aimed to bolster Israel’s deterrent capability, degrade Hamas’s rocket launch infrastructure, badly damage Gaza’s terror cells, and reduce the attacks on Israel’s citizenry.
In other words, from the start, the stewards of the conflict made plain that they did not intend to retake the Gaza Strip seven years after Israel had left it. Although Netanyahu had vowed while in the opposition to rid Gaza of its Hamas terrorist rulers, that ambition was neither the declared nor the unstated goal in the last few days.
Apparently, to use one of Ariel Sharon’s favorite aphorisms, “what you see from here, you don’t see from there.” It works better in Hebrew, but the thrust is that it’s a lot harder to implement dramatic policy promises when you actually are prime minister than when you’re merely aspiring to be prime minister.
From the get-go, then, it was clear that Hamas would be hailing “victory” whenever and however this round of conflict ended — since, for Hamas, mere survival is victory.
But Hamas has done more than survive. And the question for Israel and its supporters is whether the successes of the Netanyahu-Barak resort to force — and there are successes — are outweighed by the boost the Islamists have clearly received.
No definitive answer to that question is available so soon after the fragile truce went into effect. But some of the relevant factors can be discerned.
When Barak claimed dubiously Wednesday night that the goals of the operation had been “achieved in full,” he was referring to the fact that much of Hamas’s military command has been eliminated, starting with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari at the launch of the operation last Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds of rocket-launch sites have been smashed, tunnels blown up, ammunition stores, weapons factories and other aspects of the Islamists’ terror infrastructure destroyed.
This weakening of Hamas’s terror-wreaking capacity, even if it proves temporary, may also have profound implications if Israel finds itself in confrontation with Iran in the near future, with Hamas posing a less potent threat from the south.
It is also reasonable to argue (at least until proven otherwise) that Hamas might give greater pause before confronting Israel at the border and/or launching new rocket salvos — the factors that sparked this round of conflict.
The intelligence aspect of Israel’s strikes has shaken Hamas, no matter how swaggering its bravado. To lose your chief of staff, Jabari, on day one of a mini-war exposes a massive intelligence vulnerability. To see many of your key long-range missile locations pinpointed and targeted underlines the extent to which Israel has penetrated Hamas’s command and communications networks.
This has been achieved while Israel’s casualty rate has been kept very low, largely through the remarkable success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Israelis in rocket-range still lived in fear of attack — the shield is not impermeable, and insufficient numbers of batteries have been deployed — but the assumption that a rocket once fired will reach its destination has been replaced by the overwhelming likelihood that a rocket once launched will be intercepted.
Helping themselves immensely, Israel’s civilians showed exemplary discipline in following Home Front Command orders about how best to stay safe when under attack; life after life was saved because people simply rushed to secure areas and stayed there, while those rockets beyond Iron Dome’s protection crashed down.
By eschewing a ground offensive, Israel also avoided both a rise in its casualty figures and a likely drastic increase in Gaza fatalities. (Of the 177 Palestinians who were killed in Gaza, 120 of them were “engaged in terrorist activity,” the IDF Spokesman said Wednesday night.) It has consequently retained the support of the responsible members of the international diplomatic community (the likes of Turkey would condemn any Israel attempt at self-defense), and at least a measure of the empathy of the fair-minded members of the international media. It has also avoided a possible descent into a far wider confrontation, which could have come to threaten the already unpredictable relationships with Egypt and Jordan.
Set against all this, however, is the fact that Hamas proved robustly capable of continuing to fire rockets into Israel right up until the ceasefire, and to extend the range of its fire — setting off alarms in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and hitting the country’s fourth-largest city, Rishon Lezion, just south of Tel Aviv.
Its “resistance” — that pernicious misnomer for Hamas’s indiscriminate targeting of Israel’s civilians, effected from the midst of the Gazan populace — has doubtless attracted new adherents among the Palestinian public, few of whom are likely to blame the Islamists for bringing Israel’s stanch-the-fire airstrikes down upon the Strip. Instead, many Palestinians will doubtless hail the terror group for firing relentlessly at the loathed Israelis, and for ostensibly deterring an Israeli ground incursion.
This in turn leaves the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas increasingly marginalized, even irrelevant — a situation Abbas will doubtless seek to change by pursuing his unilateral recognition gambit at the UN General Assembly later this month.
Hamas has also gained greater governing legitimacy, hosting solidarity visits from regional leaders, and essentially requiring Israel to negotiate with it — albeit indirectly — even as it maintains its avowed goal of destroying the Jewish state.
Among the additional worries for Israelis is the concern that Netanyahu’s disinclination to make even limited use of ground forces — Pillar of Defense lasted less than half as long as Operation Cast Lead four years ago, when a ground offensive did further degrade Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure — was in part a consequence of heavy American pressure.
Then there is the fact — more troubling to Israelis on the left than those on the right — that the boosted popularity of Hamas, at the expense of relatively more moderate Palestinian figures, will further reduce the prospects of substantive progress toward some kind of viable Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.
But primarily, nightmarishly, there is the recognition that, ceasefire terms and guarantees notwithstanding, Hamas will now surely find a way to rebuild and to rearm — just as it did after Cast Lead in 2009. Which means that when the next round comes — and come it will — Hamas will have a still more potent arsenal of weaponry to fire at Israel.
Netanyahu’s critics at home and abroad sniped from the start that the decision to hit back precisely now at Hamas’s incessant border-tunneling, attacks on Israeli troops at the border and rocket fire at the south, was a political maneuver, carefully timed to smooth his path to reelection. That critique was never particularly credible, given the small potential upside if all went well for a prime minister far ahead in the polls, and the vast potential downside if all went terribly awry.
Now that the conflict is (tentatively) over, an almighty political row will undoubtedly erupt here about the effectiveness of Operation Pillar of Defense. And Netanyahu’s credibility hinges directly on whether Hamas is indeed deterred from a return to rocket fire between now and January 22.
Two months of calm might be enough for Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. But in the south of Israel — which as of this week extends all the way up to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — there is hope, albeit scant, for tranquility lasting a lot longer than that.