Into the Fray: The ruinous results of restraint

Israel can no longer enable its citizens to “live normal lives” without retaking Gaza. “Restraint” and “proportionality” have so degraded its deterrence that it can no longer dissuade enemies from attacking almost at will.

Israeli soldiers stand atop an APC outside the central Gaza Strip (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers stand atop an APC outside the central Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The ultimate test of this agreement will be a test of blood. If it becomes clear that [Palestinians] cannot overcome terror, this will be a temporary accord and... we will have no choice but to abrogate it. And if there is no choice, the IDF will return to the places it is about to leave in the upcoming months.
– Yossi Beilin on the Oslo Accords
Everything is reversible.
– Yitzhak Rabin on the Oslo Accords
Truth be told, I found it difficult to write my column this week. I spent hours staring at my laptop’s keyboard, unable to compose a single sentence, feeling waves of anger, frustration and disbelief wash over me as the news of the bombardment of the country came streaming through the television set beside me.
Depressing déjà vu
It was not that there was a dearth of topics to write about. There was a surplus of issues that could be subject matter for a column relating to the events of the last few days.
For example:
• The “original sin” of Oslo, that made the perverse – and previously scorned – notion of Palestinian statehood the center-piece of Israeli policy, which opened the flood gates of terror across the country, and eventually precipitated the current situation in Gaza;
• The continuous poor judgment by the Israeli leadership over the last two decades as to developments in Gaza and how they should be dealt with;
• The debilitating distortions and ridiculous restrictions imposed on the formulation and conduct of Israeli policy regarding Gaza by the diktats of political correctness;
• The imbecilic idea of abandoning Gaza unilaterally, thus providing the Palestinian- Arab terror organizations a territorial platform in which they could plan operations and prepare infrastructure, and from which they could launch countless attacks against Israeli civilian population centers.
• The ineffectual, albeit pyrotechnically spectacular, methods adopted by the IDF to deal with these attacks and destroy the infrastructures that facilitate them, which have allowed the terror organizations to develop operational capabilities that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.
Yes, I could have written on any one of these topics – but every time I set out to put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keyboard), I realized that I had already written about it, in some detail, in the past – and a depressing sense of déjà vu descended upon me, sapping any will to explain the obvious and warn of the inevitable once again.
Cataloging the obvious, the inevitable and the imbecilic
Over the last three years, since I began writing the Into the Fray series, I have published numerous columns dealing with the situation in Gaza, prescribing how it ought to be dealt with, and cautioning about the consequences if these caveats were not heeded.
Regrettably, although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have both personally informed me that they read my column, there is little indication that its prognoses and prescriptions have had any affect on policy decisions – despite the fact that they have, in large measure, been vindicated by developments.
I should, therefore, like to share with readers my sense of frustration, disappointment and disillusionment, and list the columns I have written on Gaza, together with their dates of publication, and the accompanying subheadlines, which convey the essence of their content and the issues they address: • “The white flag over Gaza...”: “Political correctness has precluded the pursuit of strategic imperatives; Israel can no longer credibly deter terrorists.” (08/25/2011).
• “Predicting Gaza: Rabin, Sharon, the Knesset and... well, me”: “The nation’s leaders have proved bereft of foresight – or hindsight for that matter. Can a dangerous ‘trust deficit’ be avoided?” (03/22/2012)
• “Aargh!!!”: “Despite the deadly display of hi-tech pyro-technics by the IDF, the depressing sense of déjà vu conveyed by the events unfolding in Gaza comprise a devastating indictment of Israel’s past and present political leadership.” (11/15/2012).
• “Israel 2012: Tactical brilliance, strategic imbecility”: “If the current government does not have the diplomatic competence to create the conditions necessary to provide security for its citizens, it should admit it.” (11/22/2012)
• “Israel’s infuriating impotence”: “Last week’s Gaza cease-fire proved the government incapable of delivering the goods militarily; this week’s UN vote proves it cannot deliver the goods diplomatically.”(11/29/2012)
• “Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war”: “By adhering to a policy of avoiding confrontations which Israel can win, the government risks leading it into one in which it might lose. It is time for a bold new offensive – before we are overtaken by events.” (07/03/2014)
Defies both reality and logic
A quick reading of these sub-headlines provides a broad synopsis of what has happened, and – equally important – what has not happened, in Israel’s exchanges with the terrorist enclave in the south. It is a synopsis that compels one to a lamentable but indisputable conclusion: Israel’s policy toward Gaza defies both logic and reality.
Indeed, in many ways, it is a policy that constitutes a grave violation of the social contract between government and the electorate, by which the former is obligated to provide the latter with protection of life, limb and property.
The current round of fighting is the third in the last five-and-half years. In all cases, the initiative has largely been with the terror organizations that decide when to engage in combat and when to desist from it. In neither of the two previous campaigns (Cast Lead, 2008/9 and Pillar of Defense, 2012) was the mighty IDF able to force the lightly armed Hamas to cease its fire – despite the heavy damage inflicted on it.
Instead of the fighting ending with a Hamas surrender, and an admission of defeat, the organization could claim – not without justification – that it had achieved strategic victory.
Indeed, what is becoming increasingly clear is that the stated aims of the current campaign, Protective Edge, make it, at best, an exercise in recurring futility – if not one that is largely counter-productive – likely not only to be unable to prevent a future round of fighting, but worse, to ensure our adversaries will begin it with enhanced capabilities.
‘Restoring calm’ as dereliction of duty
The fault in Israel’s declared intentions that it will “answer calm with calm” and that its objective is limited to “restoring calm to the South” is two-fold.
First, by offering to cease fire if Hamas ceases fire, Israel surrenders the initiative to its adversaries and forgoes even the theoretical possibility of defeating them. Whenever Hamas feels it has absorbed, or inflicted, sufficient damage, it can initiate a truce, secure in the knowledge that it can control the cost of its aggression, and ensure it will never be excessive.
Second, the mere “restoration of calm” is an irrational if not counterproductive operational aim. For the periods of inter-bella calm have been consistently used by the Palestinian terror groups to enhance their capabilities – as dramatically illustrated this week.
After all, when Israel left Gaza (2005), the range of the Palestinian rockets was barely 5 km., and the explosive charge they carried about 5 kg., Now their missiles have a range of over 100 km. and warheads of around 100 kg. When Israel left Gaza, only the sparse population in its immediate proximity was threatened by missiles. Now well over 5 million Israelis, well beyond Tel Aviv, are menaced by them.
There is little reason to believe that once Hamas deigns to cease fire, the ensuing calm will not be exploited to achieve further advances/improvements in its ordnance and infrastructures.
No, “restoring calm” will just not cut it. If that is what the Israeli leadership is striving for, it is coming pretty close to dereliction of duty.
The strategic dangers of restraint
Indeed, restraint is not a prudent policy, reflecting judicious cool-headedness. Quite the opposite, it is a policy of evasion, of refusal to recognize reality and of avoiding current confrontations, which can be won (admittedly as a significant cost), while risking later confrontations, which may not be possible to win (at any cost).
The damage inflicted on Hamas in 2008/9 and 2012 (and on Hezbollah in 2006) has not broken, or even perceptibly reduced, their will to fight as the defeat in WWII did with Germany and Japan. At best, it has forced Hamas to regroup, rearm and redeploy.
Clearly then, the damage inflicted on it by the air force and other “standoff” weapon systems, while admittedly grave, is damage it is prepared to absorb, rather than forgo its hostile intentions toward Israel.
Inevitably, if the enemy’s will to fight cannot be diminished, his ability to do so must be eliminated. This cannot be done by standoff weaponry. It requires boots on the ground, physical control of the enemy territory, infrastructure and installations.
Adhering to restraint and refraining from a policy of imposing surrender and inflicting acknowledged defeat on Hamas is far from cost-free. To the contrary, the costs involved in persisting with a policy of restraint are more than likely to outstrip those of the more assertive alternative.
Dangers of restraint (cont.)
The perils of restraint are myriad: On the operational-security level, they afford Hamas, and its more radical spin-offs, the opportunity to improve performance of weaponry and to:
• Tighten their counter-intelligence to constrict information on targets;
• Improve concealment and hardening of targets, which certainly seems to have been largely accomplished already, with Hamas being able to fire continuous heavy barrages of missiles, despite ferocious air attacks;
• Progress toward the establishment of an air defense system to curtail the present largely unrestricted freedom of action of the IAF;
• Develop multiple warheads for their rockets (activated by simple spring-release mechanisms already proposed on Pakistani and Chinese sites) and/or coordinate attacks with Hezbollah in the north in order to overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile defenses.
On the civilian level, the prospect of an unending recurrence of missile attacks on towns and villages is likely to result in depopulation of the more vulnerable areas, initially in the South. But with increased range of the enemy rockets, other areas, also afflicted by repeated bombardments, may find their populations denuded.
Moreover now that restraint has managed to bring central Israel (including Greater Tel Aviv) into Hamas’s rocket range, the threat of frequent large-scale disruptions of the socioeconomic routine is likely to have enormous ramifications. The short periods of calm that might have been bearable in the South will not be tolerated in the Center.
Unless a radical and permanent – or at least long-term – solution can be devised, large-scale flight of businesses and population is not an implausible prospect, which advocates of restraint must seriously ponder – and address.
Needed: Another kind of Iron Dome
The events of the last few days lead to an unpalatable but unavoidable conclusion: Israel can no longer enable its citizens to “live normal lives” without retaking Gaza.
Restraint and “proportionality” have so degraded its deterrence that it is no longer able to dissuade its enemies from attacking it almost at will. Israel must therefore destroy their ability to do so by seizing – and holding – the areas from which those attacks are launched.
This will of course involve contending with severe international censure, but this too is a topic I have addressed in several columns – see for example: “If I were prime minister...“: “The first order of business would be to devise and deploy a political ‘Iron Dome’ to protect Israel from the incoming barrages of delegitimization and demonization…” (10/31/2013).
Of course, the difficulties involved in administering a remedy deserves a discussion entirely separate from diagnosing what that remedy should be, and must be therefore deferred for a later occasion.
What is, however, vital to grasp is that although rejecting a policy of restraint is a path fraught with great difficulty, the difficultly cannot obviate the necessity.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-