Long-term success or blip in the chart of the conflict?

With a fragile ceasefire agreement taking effect, a wide-lens look at Operation Pillar of Defense

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An armed Israeli F-15I heading toward Gaza on Monday (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash 90)
An armed Israeli F-15I heading toward Gaza on Monday (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash 90)

The success or failure of Operation Pillar of Defense depends on the most elusive of parameters, the future, but this major round of conflict — Israel’s first since the still-moving fire of the Arab Spring began to burn — can be viewed on many different levels, from the army’s successes on the ground, to Hamas’s extended rocket range and resilience, to the silent but watching eyes of Iran.

For Israel the operation began with a resounding success. Ahmed Jabari, the man who headed the military wing of Hamas for a decade — transforming it from an ideologically linked but operationally disparate band of terror squads to a hierarchical organization — was killed on Day One. Moments later the majority of Hamas’s most potent weapons, the Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets, were taken out by a series of airstrikes.

Even for Hamas, a group that rears its members on the warm embrace of death, these blows surely reverberated. “It’s not just that they lost the head of the organization,” a former military intelligence officer told The Times of Israel, “it’s the panic and uncertainty that it sowed.” All at once the military commanders had to go into hiding, knowing that they would be targeted by Israel and all too aware of the fact that Israel’s intelligence, the ultimate enemy, was able to pinpoint the exact location of their most prized weapons and the whereabouts of their boss.

Also on the operational level, Iron Dome made a stunning debut. In its first full-scale test it intercepted close to 90 percent of the rockets it targeted, reducing — though emphatically not eliminating — Hamas’s most potent tactic as a terror organization: the ability to spread fear among the public. In recent visits to Ashkelon, Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi, we found residents were unanimous in their support for, even reverence of, Iron Dome. But they still shuddered when the alarms sounded.

That said, as in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Hamas proved that, like Hezbollah, it has enough carefully hidden and dispersed rockets to maintain fire throughout a confrontation with Israel, denying the Jewish state a tangible sense of victory despite the enormous disparity in firepower.

The absence of a ground operation speaks to the vulnerabilities that both sides prefer to conceal. Israel, though it states publicly that it has the right to defend itself, knows that Hamas rockets cannot be silenced without a prolonged house-to-house ground offensive, which could claim thousands of lives and erode further Israel’s public standing in the world.

Moreover, as King Abdullah of Jordan reportedly made clear Tuesday afternoon to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such an operation could threaten the stability of the entire region — that was a nice way of the king saying that Jordanian Hamas members could topple the Hashemite throne, leaving Israel’s eastern border open to Islamist regimes and chaos all the way through to India.

Hamas has proven its willingness to sacrifice life. It tries to reap rewards from the funerals of children. A ground offensive, therefore, does not scare the Islamist organization and could offer it certain tactical gains, but the truth that it prefers to conceal is that, despite the propaganda, Hamas fighters were dishonorably thrashed by the IDF in the last full-scale confrontation and that is something Hamas would prefer not to present, yet again, to the Palestinian people.

“Not all Islamic warriors are larger than life,” Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen wrote in a 2009 paper, “and in fact, the Qassam Brigades in Cast Lead showed themselves to be quite the opposite.”

The regional implications of the flare-up and its imminent resolution cast a flattering light on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Unlike Turkey, another government led by devout Sunni Muslims, and also looking to secure a position as the dominant power in the Sunni world, Morsi quietly maintained channels of communication throughout with Israel and seems to have emerged strengthened from the ordeal.

Israel, in reaching a deal brokered by one of the new Arab Spring leaders, has indicated that as a regional power it is not afraid to act in the new reality and is willing to reach mutually beneficial accords with Islamist leaders.

Iran and its proxy Hezbollah sat remarkably still during the days of warfare between Israel and Gaza. But surely the silence from Tehran and the Dahieh is not to be interpreted as a lack of concentration. Quds Force leaders will chart where the rockets fell, how Israelis responded, and which salvos proved most difficult for Iron Dome to handle. They will readjust their smuggling routes as necessary and make every attempt to keep Hamas — in essence, the first Sunni Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab Spring — within its Shiite sphere of influence.

In agreeing to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire, Israel, too, can learn a perhaps unpleasant lesson about its ongoing and looming struggle with Iran. Hamas, like Iran, faces a clear military threat from Israel. In both cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to face the relevant regimes with a credible threat and in that way to induce them to succumb to Israel and the West’s will. But both Iran and Hamas have arduously amassed weapons — whether by tunneling through the sand or moving the chess pieces of a military nuclear program forward in a masterful way — and both, therefore, demand to see the carrot and not just the stick. On both fronts, as even the ceasefire appears to indicate, Israel will have to consider making painful concessions.

Finally, as relates to the conflict with Hamas, the real test will be not so much in the immediately disputed provisions of the agreement, but in the reality that ensues. The former commander of the IDF’s operational branch within the General Staff, Maj.-Gen. Israel Ziv, told Israel Radio earlier this week that Israel had reestablished its deterrence, damaged the command structure of the military wing of Hamas, hindered the organization’s ability to manufacture and fire rockets, and damaged the image that it has tried to cultivate as a mainstream Sunni government rather than a destabilizing terror network. “But the only strategic element,” he said, “is the future” — Hamas’s ability to smuggle Iranian weapons into the Gaza Strip.

If, in several months, the flow of weapons resumes its pace, then lsrael’s accomplishments will be quickly forgotten and all too swiftly challenged.

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