Five notes on tunnels, re-occupation and other aspects of the Hamas war
Key points on the Islamists’ savvy operational conclusions, the new era of low-grade conflict, and the diplomatic underpinnings of a ground operation
Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.
With roughly two divisions of combat troops perched outside Gaza, a battered ceasefire proposal still fluttering in the distance, and reinvigorated violence –125 rockets were launched at Israel from 9 a.m. to late night Tuesday – here are five thoughts about the still unfinished mini-war:
1. A tunnel that the army and the Shin Bet found near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom – an allegedly dark work of art, equipped with lighting and ventilation and 300 tons of reinforced concrete – was not just an expression of Hamas’s understanding that, in the age of Iron Dome, it needs offensive tools beyond rockets, but also part of the comprehensive conclusions drawn in the wake of the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense.
Hamas, beyond some of the shifts detailed to The Times of Israel on Monday, also sought to take a page out of the IDF playbook: On November 14, 2012, with the defense establishment under the care of the cagey Ehud Barak, the army sent messages of calm and then launched a decisive strike that changed the course of the operation, killing the commander of Hamas’s military and striking the majority of its strategic Fajr-5 rockets. During the days prior to July 8, Hamas sent similar messages to Israel; against that backdrop, it sought to launch a strategic operation, tunneling into Israel, killing civilians or soldiers. If it had managed, as it surely sought, to abduct a soldier or a civilian, or to seize a nearby kibbutz, the operation would today look utterly different.
2. The re-occupation of Gaza, leaving aside the strategic implications of such a move, cannot be born of improvisation or sudden frustration. It requires months of diplomatic legwork and weeks of military preparation.
Diplomacy: In April 2001, some four weeks after the late prime minister Ariel Sharon took office, Gaza terrorists fired rockets at the city of Sderot. Sharon launched a minor offensive, the army advancing no more than a mile or so into the northeastern sector of the Gaza Strip, near Beit Hanoun. Yet condemnation for the Israeli move poured in from all over; even US secretary of state Colin Powell voiced his disapproval.
Front that point on, despite domestic doubt and international resistance, two developments enabled the March 2002 takeover of the West Bank: the terrible rise in the Israeli death toll and the unremitting rhetoric of Sharon.
Although he is remembered for his moves on the battlefield, the ground work for Sharon’s greatest victory – the ouster of Yasser Arafat – was performed on the phone. The old general spent hundreds of hours talking patiently, repeating the same messages, to the likes of Miguel Moratinos and Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan and Gerhard Schröder, Kjell Magne Bondevik and Bülent Ecevit. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has made any such preparations.
Military: Armies are not bows; you cannot simply draw and fire. Everyone from the chief of staff to the brigade commanders to the quartermasters needs to be readied for an operation on the scale of the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. Generals frequently say, we are ready for any contingency, but they don’t mean it. Both the army and the population have not been adequately prepared for such a move.
3. The era of constant low-grade conflict, fueled by religious fire, has arrived. Over the past eight days Israel has waged an aerial war with Gaza and taken incoming rocket and mortar fire from Sinai, Syria, and Lebanon. The only quiet border, some 400 km-long, is with Jordan. The war in Gaza, therefore, should be viewed within the larger regional context of the Arab uprisings and the fates of Arab nationalism, political Islam, and Islamist caliphate aspirations.
4. The stunning success of Iron Dome calls into question the Defense Ministry’s decision, announced in May, amid the annual budget battles, to withhold the funding necessary to field the mid-range David’s Sling missile defense system, which was supposed to come online in 2015. “I’m not sure we’ll have the David’s Sling system operational next year as a result of the budgetary constraints,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. The declaration leaves one feeling that either the Defense Ministry has not internalized the importance of missile defense – despite all of its recent statements to the contrary – or that, in pursuit of a more favorable budget, it resorted to manipulative tactics, pulling on the heartstrings of a public enamored with Iron Dome.
5. Psy-ops. Ron Schleifer, the head of the University of Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communications, said in a phone interview that he draws a distinction between psychological warfare and “a war psychologically waged.” Hamas certainly engaged in the former – sending out phone messages claiming that the nuclear reactor in Dimona had been compromised, among other things [to be detailed in a future article] – but the latter is at the heart of its campaign. Hence the rockets, which cannot defeat the state of Israel but can instill fear, and hence Hamas’s refusal to accept the ceasefire arrangement, which, at this point, would have sent a message to the Israeli public that the Resistance, as the organization likes thinking of itself, was thirsting for a respite.