With Israel poised to launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, the country finds itself at an important crossroads, one that could determine the strategic environment for many years to come.
The daily barrage of rocket fire, coupled with the ability of Hamas missiles to reach as far as Haifa, has once again brought to the fore a critical question, one that Israeli society and its leaders have wrestled with for much of the past decade but never really answered.
Simply put, it boils down to this: what price are we willing to pay to stamp out the threat from Hamas once and for all? For as previous experience has shown, limited military operations against Hamas in Gaza have had limited and largely lackluster results.
Operation Cast Lead, launched in December 2008, was aimed at halting Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and putting an end to its smuggling of weapons. Needless to say, in the long run it achieved neither objective, although there was a short-term drop in the number of rockets and projectiles fired by Hamas in the two years following the three-week-long operation.
The same holds true for the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, during which Israeli air power delivered punishing blows to Hamas’ military infrastructure throughout the strip. In the eight-day long operation, the IDF struck some 1,500 targets, including launching pads, rocket manufacturing facilities and storehouses of weapons.
Once a cease-fire was reached, the government insisted that its goals had been fulfilled and that security and calm were in the offing. Nonetheless, in an ominous sign of what was yet to come, Palestinian terrorists fired 12 rockets at Israel from Gaza during the first hour after the cease-fire had taken effect.
True, as a result of Operation Pillar of Defense, 2013 saw the lowest number of Gaza rockets launched against Israel in over a decade, with a total of just 36 for the entire year.
But the relative quiet of last year proved to be short-lived, as we have all come to see in recent weeks. In effect, whatever damage was done in 2012 to Hamas’ capability to strike Israel bought us a mere 18 months of occasional quiet and failed to forestall the present wave of attacks.
In light of this experience, it is imperative that Israel consider carefully just what it aims to achieve with the current campaign, Operation Protective Edge, both in the short and long term.
Last Wednesday, in a revealing interview on Channel 10 news, former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, a retired major-general, spoke candidly about Israel’s past failings and the challenge that it currently faces.
“We’ve never [landed] a crushing blow that hurt the other side’s ability to launch missiles,” he said.
Stating that Israel could retake Gaza in under two weeks, Amidror added that the only way to ensure a complete end to rocket attacks would be “to retake Gaza and be there for six months to a year to clean it out.”
“Only then,” he said, “will we be in a situation where they won’t fire at Israel.”
Although such an approach would undoubtedly result in large numbers of Israeli casualties and enormous international pressure on the Jewish state, Amidror said he believes that “eventually there will be no choice.”
It all comes down, he pointed out, to “how much we are willing to pay for quiet in the south.”
Few of us, myself included, have the military knowledge, access to intelligence or acquaintance with the diplomatic moves going on behind the scenes to offer much in the way of an informed opinion about whether Israeli ground forces should now enter the strip.
But one thing is certainly clear: the surest way to minimize the number of Palestinian rockets is to maximize Israeli control over Gaza. Allowing a terrorist organization such as Hamas to command territory enables it to rearm, rebuild and reorganize for the next round of fighting.
As of this writing, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over 940 rockets at Israel since last week.
If the government agrees to an end to hostilities now, there might be quiet for a year or two, but we will simply find ourselves in a similar situation once again, as soon as Hamas decides that it is ready for another confrontation.
And that means that much of Israel, especially the south, will continue to live in the shadow of Hamas’ rocket arsenal.
Alternatively, Israel can push into Gaza with all its might, reassert control over the entire area and begin the messy and lengthy process of uprooting and cleaning out the Hamas presence. But that will neither be easy nor risk-free.
This is the quandary that Israel’s society and government now face. Either we learn to live with intermittent rocket fire, or we return to Gaza for a prolonged, and possibly open-ended, period.
It is a difficult dilemma, one that most of us have been avoiding for years. But we cannot and must not continue to do so. The time has come to confront this predicament, and to stop procrastinating along the way.
Whatever choice is ultimately made, let’s just hope it brings us all the security and peace of mind that we so richly deserve.