idf soldiers leave gaza celebrate 248ap .
(photo credit: AP [file])
Camouflage paint still on their faces, the soldiers walked slowly as they crossed the Gaza border back into Israel. Guns slung over their necks, some of them staggered with exhaustion while others made an effort to stand up straight, waving Israeli flags.
While Operation Cast Lead may be over, the Israel-Hamas war continues, although this time with new understandings.
When the IDF embarked on the operation, the goals set for it by the government included weakening Hamas, restoring Israel's level of deterrence and changing the security reality in the South.
Hamas is without a doubt weakened, both militarily and governmentally. Its government and municipal offices have been completely destroyed and most of its long-range rocket capability has been knocked out. More than 200 homes belonging to its military commanders were destroyed. The homes were not just residences but also served as command-and-control centers, weapons storehouses and training centers.
Over 2,000 targets were bombed throughout the operation, and of the 1,300 Palestinians casualties, the IDF believes three-quarters were gunmen. Close to 300 weapons-smuggling tunnels were also destroyed along the Philadelphi Corridor.
Throughout the operation, the IDF stuck to its opening "Shock and Awe" tactic, based on a US military doctrine also called "rapid dominance," which calls for the use of overwhelming military power, dominant maneuvers and spectacular displays of force to paralyze an adversary.
Hamas, the IDF believes, was surprised by Israel on four different occasions throughout the operation.
The first surprise came on December 27, when Israel bombed over 110 targets in less than 30 minutes in two separate bombing waves, killing close to 250 Palestinians.
The second surprise was the intensity and force used by the IDF, which caused unprecedented destruction throughout the Strip.
The third surprise was the January 3 decision to launch a ground offensive, and the fourth surprise was the unilateral cease-fire.
The operation also unveiled unprecedented cooperation between the IDF's Southern Command, the Israel Air Force and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). The relationship forged among the heads of these branches enabled the creation of joint war rooms at Southern Command Headquarters in Beersheba and allowed real-time intelligence generated during the ground offensive to be quickly translated into accurate airstrikes.
The second goal, that of restoring Israel's deterrence, is more difficult to assess since deterrence is not something that can be quantified. The IDF believes that deterrence has been restored and that Hamas now knows it can no longer fire rockets into Israel without paying a heavy price. The IDF's assessment is based on intelligence and conversations it has intercepted between Hamas leaders.
Time will tell, and while many Israelis are skeptical, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi likes to remind people that while the destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor and the assassination of Hizbullah's military chief in Damascus are both attributed to Israel, neither Syria nor Hizbullah have responded. Ashkenazi understands this to be due to powerful Israeli deterrence.
The third objective is the trickiest of all since the creation of a new security reality in the South is not just dependent on Operation Cast Lead but also on Egypt, the United States and the European Union, which have all been asked to help curb the flow of arms from the Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip.
The memorandum of understanding signed on Friday between the US and Israel regarding the smuggling does not discuss actual steps that will be taken to stop the smuggling and refers to the issue in general terms. With a new administration set to move in to the White House on Tuesday, it will take weeks, if not months, before that memorandum is translated into practical steps.
Egypt's efforts will also come under scrutiny but will not change immediately. There too, it will take some time before the facts change on the ground. Egypt still has to decide what type of physical barrier, if any, it is willing to build to stop the smuggling.
Ultimately though, Israel will, as usual, only be able to rely on itself, and will need act consistently with its claim that it will no longer tolerate rocket attacks from Gaza. If it allows the attacks and the smuggling to continue, Operation Cast Lead will soon become just another chapter in the Israel-Hamas war.