In mid-May the commander of the Israeli Air Force told an auditorium full of white-haired men, most veterans of the IAF, that the Israel of 2014 no longer has “the luxury of a month-long war.”
The number of targets struck from the air during 34-day war in Lebanon in 2006, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said, could be hit in “less than 24 hours today.” The firepower deployed from the air during the eight-day effort in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, he added, could be brought to bear in “less than 12 hours today.”
The point, it seemed, was this: Israel, post-Goldstone, cannot afford to be dragged through the international mud for the duration of a prolonged war, nor can it expose its citizens and its economy to weeks of rocket fire; therefore, with the aid, primarily, of precise intelligence acquired from space-based systems, and accurate munitions, Israel would win, or at least conclude, any future conflict swiftly.
We are “in the age of fire [power],” Eshel said. And because military strength, since at least Napoleon’s era, is seen as being composed of equal parts firepower and ground maneuvers, one can deduce that Eshel, a man who radiates a charismatic competence, meant to say that we are no longer in the age of the ground operation.
Unfortunately for Israel, though, it would seem that Hamas, with its willingness to endure terrific suffering — or, rather, to impose such suffering on Gaza — and its utterly different notions of time and what it means to attain a goal, is very firmly in that age. And with Day 49 of Operation Protective Edge already upon us, one wonders if, after the close of one limited but costly ground invasion, Israel will launch another one and what shape it might take.
One option would be yet another limited operation meant to address the threat of mortar fire. Hamas has proven strikingly adept at steering its fighting doctrine away from Israel’s strengths: If Israel has precise munitions, then Hamas has positioned its weaponry and command centers in hospitals and in extreme proximity to civilian centers. If Israel has highly advanced signals intelligence capacities, then Hamas has turned toward runners and other primitive forms of communication. If Israel controls the skies and sees all from above, then Hamas has carved out a subterranean network from which it launches ambushes and rocket strikes. And if, among other things, Israel’s engineers have manufactured a means of striking Hamas’s rockets out of the sky, then Hamas has moved toward mortars, which have a limited range but are largely immune to Iron Dome’s capabilities.
A ground offensive of that sort would attempt to smother most of the mortar fire and, perhaps, cut the Gaza Strip into three sections, thereby applying further pressure on Hamas and forcing it to come back to the table in Cairo in a more concessionary mood. It would also require, after the initial push, a largely static presence of army troops, an easy target for Hamas operatives.
For now, Israel’s leadership has avoided this option, choosing instead, after many weeks of reluctance, to pay for the temporary relocation of, and alternate housing for, the residents within mortar range of the Gaza Strip and, evidently, allowing the air force to ramp up its attacks, targeting Hamas commanders and tall residential complexes that the IDF said also served as Hamas command-and-control centers.
Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the INSS think tank and a former head of the Palestinian Desk at the Strategic Affairs Ministry, said he understands the government’s rationale of calling for perseverance and of leveraging the attrition, “because, in all, it works in our favor.”
He explained that with Egypt shutting the tunnels into Gaza and Hamas managing a dwindling supply of weapons, time seemed objectively to be working for Israel. Yet as a resident of Ashkelon and a former member of the municipal government in the seaside city, he said, “I don’t think the people in the south are willing to carry that burden.”
A ground operation at this stage, Michael suggested, needn’t entail a full occupation of the Gaza Strip, but rather a focused blow against the organization’s military personnel and apparatus, weakening it to the point of amenability to compromise. He said he assumes that “there’s not-bad intelligence” about the location of Hamas command-and-control centers and the location of its senior personnel.
Such an operation, for it to stand any chance of success, he said, must be initiated by Israel and sprung as a surprise. Asserting that every passing day “erodes the potential” of a possible ground operation, he said that “it would be very bad if we were tugged [into it] after a Grad [rocket] fell on a school.”
At this stage, though, it’s unclear to what extent a ground operation would induce Hamas to fly a white flag, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested Friday, and whether any gains attained at the bargaining table would be worth the price in blood.