Operation Shield and Arrow: Israel's Gaza ops are curse and blessing

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: How the routine nature of the Gaza-Israel rounds of conflict is both a problem and a source of comfort.

 AN IRON DOME launcher in Ashkelon fires an interceptor missile at rockets launched from Gaza, on Wednesday. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
AN IRON DOME launcher in Ashkelon fires an interceptor missile at rockets launched from Gaza, on Wednesday.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The names of IDF operations in Gaza since Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal strip in 2005 read like a short-story anthology’s table of contents.

First Rains. Summer Rains. Autumn Clouds. Hot Winter. Black Belt. Breaking Dawn. Cast Lead. Pillar of Defense. Protective Edge. Guardian of the Walls. Closed Garden. Returning Echo.

And now, Shield and Arrow.

The sheer number of operations in a span of 18 years makes them difficult to keep straight. After a while, they all blend into one. Autumn Clouds, was that in 2006 or 2013? Breaking Dawn, was that a relatively brief campaign or an extended one?

Some of these campaigns lasted hours, others days, and even weeks.

 Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, as it seen from Sderot on May 10, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, as it seen from Sderot on May 10, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

They all led to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in communities near the Gaza border scampering for shelter from rockets indiscriminately fired. They all led to schools canceled, lives disrupted, young memories scarred, and trauma among those in the line of fire... and beyond.

They also led to many more casualties and much more damage on the other side than in Israel.

They also have led to a certain routine.

The terrorist organizations provoke, Israel responds; the terrorist organizations fire from behind civilians, Israel inadvertently kills some of their “human shields.” Parts of the international community howl. Egypt steps in. A ceasefire is brokered. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

That routinization is both a curse and a blessing.

It’s a curse in that there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that a country accepts as part of the regular flow of events that every once in a while its civilian population will be targeted by rockets meant to wreak maximum death and destruction.

But it’s also a blessing in that were the country not able to take these rounds in stride, absorb them, and then move on the next day as if nothing happened – and even forget the names of each operation – then life here would be intolerable.

How do we know that the country takes the events in stride and continues on?

Consider the statistics. From 2009 to 2019, the population of the Gaza border communities grew – did not decrease, but grew – by some 37%. Sderot, known far and wide now more for rocket attacks than for anything else, also grew during this period by 33%.

That these communities expanded at all during a decade during which every once in a while daily life was upended by blaring Code Red alarms is an indication that this is a routine that people feel is, well, sufferable.

Some might take issue with this. Some might argue that if the country did not bounce back so easily and readily from each round, it would have to find a solution to the problem – either a political/diplomatic solution or a military one. Either make peace with Gaza or level it; either recognize Hamas’s control of the strip or conquer it again.

But what if none of that is possible?

What if leveling Gaza is not realistic, and you don’t want to conquer it anew? What if peace is also impossible because the other side ideologically and theologically wants to destroy you? Then what do you do?

Then you live with the problem as best you can. And it is precisely within that space – living with the problem as best you can – where routine is not necessarily a bad thing, where getting used to something dreadful is not the same as accepting it, but rather a way of living with a problem that for the moment might be unsolvable.

WHAT WAS was different about this current round, however,  was that it fell outside the expected patterns.

This time it diverted a bit from the routine we had become so accustomed to.

This time there was a delay.

First, there was a delay in Israel’s initial response, which created the impression that Israel was not necessarily responding to rockets or terror coming from Gaza, but instead initiating a campaign of its own.

There was also an uncharacteristic delay from the other side: Islamic Jihad did not fire back immediately after three of its senior commanders were killed simultaneously in the span of two seconds, but rather waited some 35 hours to strike.

Both delays sent messages.

The trigger to this round was Islamic Jihad’s firing more than 100 rockets toward Israel last week after a hunger-striking Islamic Jihad terrorist starved himself to death in an Israeli prison. Israel’s initial reaction – bombing some relatively inconsequential Islamic Jihad sites – was perfunctory. It waited for the true response.

Because of the delay, when the IAF killed the three senior Islamic Jihad terrorists on Tuesday morning, it seemed as if the launch of a new policy. It was as if Israel was now taking the initiative and not only responding, and that the new initiative was to once again boldly target the heads of the terrorist organizations. This sent a message to Islamic Jihad and others watching that Israel has not lost its determination, capacity  or will to fight.

Coming after Iranian, Hezbollah, and Hamas leaders seemed to be drawing the wrong conclusions from the domestic turmoil accompanying the judicial reform crisis – Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah said a few months ago Israel was self-destructing and would not survive to see its 80th birthday – the message delivered by seizing the initiative and killing the three top Islamic Jihad terrorist leaders was significant: don’t confuse internal dissent and protest for lack of will and capability.

Islamic Jihad sent a message of its own by delaying its reaction to the killing of its leaders: it can disrupt Israeli life and the economy, and the country’s overall equilibrium, by just threatening to act, and not necessarily doing anything.

In the 35 hours between when Israel killed the Islamic Jihad leaders and when the terrorist organization reacted with rockets of its own, the country was on a jittery edge over when the first rocket would be fired and where it would hit. That it did not come when the country expected it was a break in the routine, and somewhat discombobulating. When Islamic Jihad did finally fire its missiles, the country returned to the well-worn script, and – oddly – there was a sense of relief that the comfortable routine was back.

OTHER OLD ROUTINES ALSO re-emerged this week.

The first was the country’s return to a security-first agenda. After months when the judicial upheaval plan dominated the public debate, there was hardly any mention of it this week. The names Simcha Rothman, Yariv Levin on the pro-reform side, and Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Halutz on the anti-reform side were barely mentioned in the media. The primary concern was security issues: everything else could wait.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took pains to showcase something else that in the past was always routine, but in recent months seemed less so: harmony and coordination between the prime minister and the country’s top security brass.

On Tuesday, the first day of Operation Shield and Arrow, Netanyahu delivered an address to the nation along with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar. On Wednesday, flanked by Gallant, he delivered another speech.

Those appearances – the first possibly premature and the second perhaps redundant – were important to reassure the country that the general practice of the prime minister working seamlessly and well with the defense minister and head of the security services was alive and well. 

Why was that important to showcase?

Because less than two months ago Netanyahu said he would fire Gallant, and both Halevi and Bar signaled discomfort with how the judicial reform issue was progressing and dividing the nation. Netanyahu’s twin appearance with Gallant and sharing the stage with Halevi and Bar were meant to reassure the public that the top security brass is working together and is coordinated, that this routine had not been disrupted.

The final Israeli routine that re-emerged over the last several days was unity in crisis. The country is well-known for this: an ability to pull together and show solidarity when under attack. When one’s house is attacked from the outside, all the quarrels among the household members inside – regardless of how passionate and serious those arguments might be – are put on hold to repel the dangers from without.

Fears just a few weeks ago of civil war, of pilots refusing to fly missions,  of reserve soldiers not showing up for reserve duty melted away this week – at least temporarily. 

As conservative journalist Naveh Dromi wrote this week in Yediot Ahronot, “When the children of Sderot, whose parents probably voted for the Right, and the children of Nahal Oz, whose parents probably voted for the Left, need to run at the same time to the bomb shelters, no pilot will refuse when called upon to eliminate three terrorists.”

As cheesy and cliché-ish as it might have sounded, Netanyahu’s closing words in remarks to the nation on Wednesday night rang true: “The campaign is not over yet... We got into it together, we stand in it together, and we will win it together.”

That, too, is part of the Israeli “routine.” Deep and passionate divisions in times of security quiet, solidarity, and a commonality of purpose during moments of threat. And in that routine there is no small amount of comfort. •