As Operation Protective Edge enters its fourth day, the eight-person security cabinet – which met in a marathon session on Thursday – is faced with a stark strategic choice.
Should Israel retake Gaza, destroy its terrorist infrastructure and then control the Strip for the foreseeable future – paying a price in Israeli casualties that will likely result from both the initial occupation and the cleaning out of the area, and then having to administer Gaza for who knows how long? Or is it better to suffice with delivering Hamas a punishing blow, stopping short of retaking the Strip, but knowing full well that if that is the course of action pursued, than in another few years what is happening now will simply repeat itself? Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, an operation that led to the death of 13 Israeli soldiers, and some 1,166 Palestinians, nearly 800 of them defined as combatants. The deterrence achieved in that operation lasted almost five years, until November 2012, when Operation Pillar of Defense was launched, an operation that lead to six Israeli fatalities, and 133 Palestinians, of which 80 were combatants.
That deterrence only lasted a year and a half – until now.
Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have given any indication that they are interested in once again taking over Gaza, but if the pounding the IDF has delivered from the air does not – within a few days – bring about the quiet that is the stated purpose of the operation, then that may change.
Former national security adviser Ya’acov Amidror, in an interview with Israel Radio on Thursday, laid out the options in a very blunt way: Either retake Gaza and stop the fire, or live with a situation where every few years a military operation of this scope will be necessary.
He did not express any personal preference, just laid out the choices. And each option had its price.
“It is possible to completely stop the firing on Israel,” he said.
“They are not firing from Kalkilya onto Israel and did not fire from Gaza until the Oslo agreements.”
The only way to do this, he added, was to control the territory – no one in the world has found a way to stop someone from firing rockets into their territory, unless they control the territory.
The question is not whether Israel could stop the fire, he said. It is rather whether it is willing to pay the price in blood, treasure and difficulties in the international arena to do so.
The price would come in three different stages. The first would be in the loss of IDF soldiers during an operation to take over the 60-km.-long, 5-km.-wide territory.
The second price, also in likely fatalities, would come in “cleaning out the stables” in Gaza, destroying the terrorist infrastructure there – the stockpiled arms as well as the ability to manufacture more arms. The price for this, too, would be the loss of IDF soldiers.
Amidror said this stage would take some six months to a year.
And the third stage would be controlling Gaza, with its 1.5 million inhabitants, after it is retaken. This would have a financial price tag, since Israel would have to administer the area, much as it did before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Amidror said that the price of administering Gaza would likely not be significantly more than the price of Operation Protective Edge-type military operations every couple of years.
If Israel is not willing to pay those prices and retake the Strip, then these types of operations will be necessary every few years. But that option also has a price; namely, that every few years the country will be subjected to what it is going through right now.
The principle behind the current operation is based on the idea that there is a middle path between the two stark options – and that it is possible to create a reality whereby the deterrence created by a major military operation could last beyond just a couple of years.
And one of the reasons for that assumption has to do with the geopolitical changes in the region.
The operation is based on two legs: The first is to pound Hamas, to dismantle as much as possible the organization’s arsenal and weapon making capabilities so that even if they want to fire on Israel, their ability to do so will be severely curtailed. One issue the security cabinet is grappling with right now, is whether this can be achieved without committing ground troops.
And the second leg is deterrence: Pound Hamas so hard, that they will think twice before daring to strike again.
Those two considerations animated Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, with the deterrence gained from the last operation not lasting too long.
One main difference now, however, is Egypt. Every passing hour and day leads to a diminishing of Hamas’s military capabilities.
But while in the past Hamas could count on being able to quickly smuggle more rockets into its territory through Egypt, arming itself to the teeth for the next round, that situation has changed because of the change of leadership in Cairo.
That new reality is being considered as the security cabinet is trying to determine whether there may be a middle path between totally taking over Gaza, or having to go through what Israel is going through right now every few years.