Glad Not to Be Prime Minister Netanyahu
I am convinced that Israel had no choice but to undertake a major ground operation into the Gaza Strip, and that the time has never been so propitious in terms of what can be achieved by such an operation. “Mowing the grass” for the third time in five and a half years is not sufficient, and will only result in a higher cost later.
That said, I am relieved not to be the one charged with actually making that decision. In the natural order, a ground invasion of Gaza will certainly cost many Jewish lives, perhaps hundreds. Anyone who does not feel the weight of such a decision should not be prime minister of Israel. On the other hand, anyone who cannot make such a decision should not be prime minister of Israel.
No national leader in the world faces as many such decisions weighing the costs of lives now versus those likely to be lost at a future date due to inaction as the prime minister of Israel . Such balancing, which in the nature of things must always be made in a state of uncertainty, is implicated in every prisoner exchange and it is at the heart of the decision about whether or not to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. We can be sure that the Iranians are watching with eagle eyes what Israel does now with respect to entering the Gaza Strip.
Were Israel to continue to fight the battle only from the air – and with the air force severely constrained in its choice of targets — the Iranians would know, via a kal v’chomer (a fortiori), that they need never fear an Israeli attack. The potential costs to Israel of an attack on Iran, both in terms of the likely Iranian military response and the inevitable international condemnation, would be far greater than those of an Israeli ground action in Gaza, even one of long duration.
LET US UNDERSTAND CLEARLY why today may be the best opportunity for a ground action that is ever likely to present itself to Israel and why the potential gains from such an operation are far greater than they were in Operation Cast Lead or Operation Pillar of Defense.
By rejecting the proposed Egyptian ceasefire and continuing to launch rockets even after Israeli had put a hold on all military activity, Hamas made it that much easier for Israel to place the onus on it for the subsequent ground action. From the start of Operation Preventive Edge, Israel has been the beneficiary of unprecedented international support and understanding. Most national leaders comprehend that no country can tolerate hundreds of rockets targeting every main civilian center and the country’s only major international airport. Even the Palestinian Authority representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council publicly stated that each rocket fired by Hamas at Israeli civilians constitutes a war crime.
But the most important difference between previous operations and today boils down to one word: Egypt. Less than two year ago, during the last round of prolonged fighting between Hamas and Israeli forces in Operation Pillar of Defense, Egypt had a Muslim Brotherhood government and was a close ally of Hamas. Today, the Egyptian government has declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood, and is no friend of Hamas to put it mildly. Egypt is currently engaged in a war on various jihadi groups in the Sinai, and has taken the initiative in closing down or destroying the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza along the Philadelphi Corridor, from which Hamas gains most of its revenue and a steady stream of armaments. Throughout the current fighting, the Egyptian press has by and large maintained an extremely critical, even contemptuous, stance towards Hamas. The lack of trust in Egypt and a desire to deny Egypt the international status that would go with brokering a ceasefire were two of the main reasons that Hamas rejected Egypt’s first ceasefire proposal – a proposal that Israel accepted.
Egypt’s own blockade of Gaza and its efforts to keep the smuggling tunnels closed is the most powerful argument in favor of an Israeli ground action. Israel was unwilling to retake the Philadelphi Corridor, during both Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. As a consequence, there was little rationale for a large-scale ground operation in Gaza. Even if Israel had succeeded in uncovering the entire elaborate labyrinth of Hamas tunnels, many of them deeply underground and under hospitals, mosques, and other highly sensitive civilian targets, there would have been only a limited utility to such an action, since Hamas would soon have rebuilt the tunnels and rearmed, with building materials and rockets smuggled in from Egypt. (There was not then and is not today any significant support in Israel for Israel retaking long-term control of the Gaza Strip.)
But that calculus has completely changed today. Egypt’s active hostility to the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and efforts to shut down the underground smuggling betweem Egypt and Gaza offer the possibility for the first time of lasting, long-term gains from a ground offensive in Gaza. For if Israel gained control of the Gaza Strip and took the time to destroy the vast stores of rockets and rocket manufacturing operations, the gains would not be temporary, but potentially long-lasting because Hamas would no longer be able to rearm, as it has in the past. (After both of the two most recent Israeli campaigns in Gaza, Hamas succeeded in increasing the quality and quantity of its rockets dramatically in the years following.
According to former Chief of IDF planning, General Yaacov Amidror, it would likely take the IDF at least two weeks to gain control of Gaza, and six months to a year to find and destroy its network of underground tunnels. There should be no underestimating the difficulty of the task. The underground tunnels are designed not just to hide rockets, rocket production facilities, and Hamas leaders, but to facilitate a defensive war against Israeli troops on home turf. In densely populated Gaza, Israeli tanks will be of little use in most places, and Israeli troops will frequently find themselves exposed to sniper fire.
It is still possible that Israel will confine its ground action to destroying the tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza and those built up by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. The immediate trigger for the Israeli ground action was the infiltration of thirteen Hamas fighters into Israel proper via one such tunnel. [At the time of this writing, July 17, the full extent of the offensive tunnels was not yet known. Those destruction of those tunnels are now the most urgent goal of the ground offensive.]
As the Israeli operation drags on, even in the first phase, international condemnation would predictably grow. At present, the majority of the Israeli population appears to support a ground operation, but as Israeli casualties mount, that support too may well wither very fast.
Yet, from a long-range perspective, Israel really has very little choice. It cannot afford to have the entire South of the country rendered inhabitable, as is currently becoming the case. The entire South is subject to intermittent rocket fire from Hamas, with occasional deluges, as over the last two weeks. Residents of Ashkelon and Beersheba have only 30 seconds from the time the sirens wail to reach shelter. And Hamas’s range is being constantly extended.
Over the next decade, Israel can expect to be a refuge for thousands of Jews from Europe. Already three-quarters of French Jews are contemplating aliyah. That aliyah will break the housing market in Israel’s already overcrowded central region. New immigrants will have to move to the South as well, including Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beersheba which have been among the most heavily targeted cities in the current conflict. But who in their right mind would put themselves in the line of fire as do residents of Sderot at present? Only people who can’t get out or crazy idealists would remain with their families under the constant threat of heavy rocket fire.
The only answer – at least the only one I can see – is to destroy Hamas’s current inventory of rockets and also their tunnels. Taking the steps necessary to do so is the unenviable decision that fell upon Prime Minister Netanyahu.