Israel’s long-delayed response to missile attacks on its southern region began in earnest this past Shabbos. (One hopes that Shabbos was chosen because of the opportunity presented to wipe out 160 Hamas fighters at a military graduation ceremony and not out of indifference to its sanctity.) Israeli air strikes were aimed at underground rocket launchers, missile silos, ammunition dumps, and Hamas training camps. Virtually all of Hamas’s official headquarters in the Gaza Strip were destroyed. In a second day of sorties, Israel claimed to have destroyed 40 underground tunnels between Rafah, in Egyptian Sinai, and Gaza. Those tunnels have been the principal means for Hamas to bring vastly upgraded armaments into Gaza, as well as commercial goods on which Hamas exacted high taxes.
Initial reports indicate a high degree of satisfaction in the IDF with the quality of the intelligence that it succeeded in amassing concerning the location of military targets. Even Palestinian reports claimed no more than 45 civilian casualties out of the approximately 300 Gazans killed in the first two days of Israeli sorties.(Israeli reports placed the number of civilian casualties far lower.)
Despite the satisfaction in the IDF with the accuracy of the bombing and the quality of the intelli gence, the most that can be said, as we write, is that Israel has successfully reprised the first 38 minutes of the Second Lebanon War, in which much of Hizbullohs infrastructure in south Beirut was destroyed and most of the longer range missiles in its possession elinimated. But just as the next month of fighting in Lebanon in 2006 demonstrated that air strikes alone are insufficient to entirely suppress missile fire from mobile rocket launchers – Hizbullah fired more missiles on the last day of fighting than on any previous day – so it seems sure that air strikes alone will not prove sufficient to eliminate Hamas’ missile capacity for any prolonged period of time.
Meanwhile Israel has called up 6,500 reservists, moved tanks from the North to the South, and appears to be preparing for some sort of ground operation on the Gaza Strip, though of what magnitude and duration remains unclear.
SINCE 2001 more than 6,000 missiles have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. The number of missiles fired increased by 500% after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the entirety of the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the range of missiles in Hamas’ possession has increased dramatically, with a large strip of Israel’s coastal plane coming into range, including the major cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Kiryat Gat. Beersheba, the capital of Israel’s southern Negev region, is also now within range of Hamas’s Iranian-supplied missiles. To bring the point home, an Israeli man was killed by missile fire in Netivot and an Arab worker at an Ashekelon construction site in the first two days of fighting.
Gaza has long presented Israeli policymakers with a series of unsavory options. Just as Hizbullah took advantage of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal to build up an elaborate system of underground bunkers and tunnels, so has Hamas been busy building up its defensive fortifications over the last three years and improving its fighting capacity. Hamas possesses both anti-tank and shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. An Israeli ground action in Gaza could therefore be costly in terms of Israeli lives. On the other hand, the longer an action long viewed as inevitable is delayed, the greater the Jewish casualties likely to be sustained.
Even assuming that an action were successful, and Israel succeeded in destroying the vast majority of Hamas armaments and infrastructure, what happens next? If the IDF simply withdraws, particularly if it leaves the Philadelphi Corridor, currently under Egypt’s ineffective control, through which most of the smuggling into Gaza takes place, then what has been gained? Hamas will simply rearm again. On the other hand, few in Israel are eager to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, which would entail heavy diplomatic, militray, and economic costs.
Further complicating matters for Israeli policymakers is the fact that Hamas does not operate according to a normal cost-benefit calculus. Thus normal deterrent strategies do not work against it. Barry Rubin, one of the sharpest analysts of Mideast politics, writes that Hamas actually courts an increase in the suffering of its own people at Israel’s hands for several reasons. First, it believes that the more miserable the lives of the people of the Gaza Strip, the more willing and eager they will be to die fighting Israel, which remains Hamas’s raison d’etre. That viewpoint underlies the sixty year refusal of the Palestinians to tear down the refugee camps: to do so would remove the greatest source of Palestinian misery and thus the largest source of fighters against Israel.
Second, confronting Israel, even at great cost in Palestinian lives, confers upon Hamas great prestige in the Arab street and thereby helps to secure its own power. And finally, by provoking an Israeli response, which inevitably results in more Palestinians than Jews being killed, Hamas can count on the West’s useful idiots to start bemoaning Israel’s “disproportionate response.” By increasing Palestinian suffering, Hamas hopes to increase military or economic pressure on Israel. As novelist Amos Oz, a long-time stalwart of the Israeli Left, described Hamas strategy this week, “If innocent Israelis are killed – good; and if innocent Palestinians are killed – even better.”
But as bad as every possible course of Israeli action appears, that of passivity adopted by the Israeli government since 2005 is the worst of all. No country can long allow a weaker enemy to shoot missiles at its citizens with impunity and hope to survive in the long-run. The most basic task of government is the defense of its citizenry, and if Israel cannot, or will not, do that, it has become an illusion. A strategy that focuses primarily on defensive measures – reinforcing public buildings, developing better early-warning systems and costly anti-missile defenses – drains the citizenry of hope and belief in the government. And that is particularly true, if it appears that the country’s elites living near Tel Aviv are willing to tolerate a level of danger for socially marginal groups in the South that they would never tolerate for themselves.
Secondly, Israeli passivity causes the world community to view missiles falling on Israeli cities as something normal so that when Israel eventually responds, it is treated as having violated the status quo.
And most dangerous of all, Israeli passivity encourages the Palestinian belief that time is on their side and that Israel is rotting to the core. Hamas’ theological view gives them a different time perspective, according to which almost any amount of present suffering can be justified by the prospect of future victory. And that is why it is so important to remove from its collective mind the sense that Israel is a spent force.
In that vein, Hamas’s mocking tone towards Israel after the end of the six-month ceasefire (itself violated by Hamas more than 200 times), made a forceful Israeli response to the bombardments of last Wedneday and Thursday imperative. After that barrage of 60 missiles on Wednesday and 80 on Thursday, Hamas issued a leaflet in which it boasted, “The enemy is in a state of confusion and doesn’t know what to do. Their fragile cabinet has met in a desperate attempt to stop the rockets while thousands of settlers have found refuge in shelters, which will become their permanent homes.”
Hamas had become convinced, wrote Amos Harel and Avi Issachoroff in Ha’aretz, that Israel was afraid to fight. Unfortunately, Israel had done a great deal to earn Hamas’s contempt. Foreign Minister and would be prime minister Tzippi Livni strongly implied that Israel would have to wait for a direct hit on an Israeli school building or hospital before acting forcefully to protect her citizens in the South. No country can afford to subvert the defense of its citizens to favorable world opinion to that degree, particularly world opinion so lacking in objectivity or even a basic willingness to apply to Israel the same standards for the defense of its citizens that its critics apply to the defense of their own citizens.
Long before the Second Lebanon War, Israel’s military and civilian leaders inverted the traditional relationship between the IDF and Israeli civilians. Normally, a country’s soldiers put their lives at risk to defend civilians. Israel, unique among the nations, writes Israel Harel, treats soldier casualties as more tragic than civilian, and so Israeli civilians are told to put their lives at risk so as not to endanger soldiers. That is what happened in the Second Lebanon War, when civilians in the North were forced to remain in shelters for more than a month, while the IDF hesitated endlessly before initiating a large ground operation in southern Lebanon. And it is has happened since then, as residents of southern communities have been asked to absorb continual rocket fire, while the IDF holds its hands.
The current air campaign against Hamas is an important first step in restoring Israel’s deterrent capacity. But like the first 38 minutes of the Second Lebanon War, it is only a first step. Only the coming weeks, and perhaps months, will determine whether anything lasting is gained.
Six days after the filing of this report, the IDF began ground operations in the Gaza Strip, the outcome of which is still unknown.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on December 31, 2008.