Since withdrawing from the Gaza Strip unilaterally in 2005, Israel has come under frequent attack by Hamas, and has been forced to fight three wars to defend the South from rocket barrages and tunnel attacks.
In none of those conflicts did Israel aim to destroy or topple the Islamist regime and its hybrid terrorist army. The goal of each conflict was to inflict sufficient levels of damage on Hamas to deter it from seeking conflict with Israel again soon.
Yet since the conclusion of the 50-day war with Hamas in the summer of 2014, a change has occurred in the thinking of the defense establishment and the government. The concept of fighting a war to achieve deterrence has been tossed aside, in favor of an old-new war goal: achieving the military destruction of the enemy.
Hamas has shown no interest in using its rule to promote the economic interests of its long-suffering subjects, whose prospects look bleak. Among Gazan youths, many of whom are university educated, there is a 40 percent unemployment rate, yet their jihadist regime, bent on destroying Israel, offers them little more than the promise of more fruitless conflict.
Destroying the enemy may seem like an obvious goal to some, yet while it is certainly achievable, concerns over what would happen in Gaza once this goal is achieved are what held Israel back so far.
With no clear alternative rulers for Gaza’s population of nearly two million, the idea of Israel going back to control the daily lives of this troubled enclave after ridding it of the Hamas regime was enough to put decision-makers off the idea of achieving Hamas’s destruction.
In recent months, that thinking has changed, and the defense establishment and government appear to now believe that in the event of a future war, it would be possible to both defang Hamas and achieve some sort of sustainable Palestinian political rule for the Strip, though the precise details of this remain vague.
Some in the defense establishment have proposed leaving Hamas’s political wing in place while destroying its military wing in any conflict. It is not clear whether this would actually be adopted, should hostilities resume.
On Thursday, a senior source in the Defense Ministry made headlines when he said that the next war with Hamas in Gaza will be the last for the Islamist regime. He stressed that Israel would not be the side to initiate the conflict, but that if it were dragged into one, Hamas would not survive its fourth war with Israel.
The comments come at a curious time, when there have been almost no terrorist attacks coming out of the Gaza Strip, and Hamas appears fully deterred.
One possible conclusion to be drawn is that the remarks are aimed at deepening this deterrence further, since Hamas’s policy of enforcing the cease-fire will not hold forever.
Hamas is divided into three parts - its political, military and overseas components – and these often do not see eye to eye.
The military wing is investing all of Hamas’s resources in building up attack capabilities, manufacturing rockets, and building up sea-based commando units. It remains angry with the political wing, which it accuses of holding attack efforts back in 2014, and falling short of achieving better results during the war. The military wing, headed by Muhammad Deif, is growing in power, and it is slowly taking over the political wing, too, which asks more questions about the benefits of near-term conflict with Israel.
Iran, too, has stepped up its financial assistance to the military wing, eager to keep the Gazan front with Israel active. Hamas is training its elite Nuhba force, representing a quarter of its 20,000 armed members, for cross-border raids into Israel.
While Hamas would like to continue building up these capabilities quietly, a new financial crisis in Gaza could push it to seek war with Israel sooner than expected. Such calculations might well be linked to the recent comments made by the defense official.
In the meantime, away from the media spotlight, the IDF Southern Command has improved its readiness for war. Drawing on lessons from Operation Protective Edge, the command has prepared more robust defenses around southern communities, and it is significantly improving its ability to direct precise, devastating offensive firepower at Hamas targets.
This is occurring as the command has made breakthroughs in its ability to detect Hamas’s tunnels using classified systems and anti-tunneling countermeasures.
The Southern Command has drawn up and approved a series of operational plans, after holding roundtables with Military Intelligence, the Israel Air Force, the Office of the IDF Chief Prosecutor, the Home Front Command, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the Ground Forces Command and others. It is now focused on training battalions on how to defeat – not merely deter – Hamas and training heavily in urban warfare.
Time will tell whether the IDF will soon need to activate these plans, or whether Hamas’s mere knowledge of them will suffice to keep the guns silent in the South.