Security and Defense: The Gaza conundrum

While Israel seeks to hit Hamas hard, it is reluctant to topple the organization as the alternative could be far worse.

IDF troops walk across a field near central Gaza Strip July 12, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF troops walk across a field near central Gaza Strip July 12, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If yesterday’s reports that negotiations in Cairo were set to achieve a comprehensive cease-fire are accurate, then the current round of hostilities and violence can be said to be over.
But if the reports were premature, then it would seem we are back to “routine.”
Routine is the only way to describe Israel’s conflict with Hamas, both on the war and home fronts.
With the exception of yesterday’s five-hour humanitarian truce (which was violated via a few rockets launched from Gaza), the Israel Air Force has continued to bomb Hamas, and Hamas has continued to launch rockets at Israel.
An Israeli delegation led by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yoram Cohen was in Cairo yesterday for talks; after a few hours, they returned to Israel as planned. It would be no surprise if early next week, they return for more talks.
Call it whatever you like – indirect talks, encounters, proximity talks – Israel and Hamas are, in practice, also negotiating the terms of a long-term cease-fire, and the political settlement regarding Gaza once the war is over.
According to a senior IDF officer who briefed journalists: “The next few days will be very sensitive,” and determine whether the cease-fire which Hamas rejected on Tuesday will be put in place next week.
One of the reasons Hamas rejected the cease-fire was its sense that it had been humiliated by Egypt. Hamas felt – and rightly so – that Egypt, which initiated the cease-fire, had ignored it, while secretly coordinating the terms with Israel. Basically, the first Egyptian initiative accepted the Israeli position that “quiet will be met with quiet.”
Hamas cannot afford to allow itself to emerge from this campaign without either military or political gain. So far, its military operation has failed despite its efforts to surprise Israel: A naval commando assault against Kibbutz Zikim was thwarted by the IDF; a mini-UAV sent into Israeli airspace was shot down; and an attempt yesterday, just hours before the humanitarian cease-fire was to come into effect, to infiltrate Israel via a tunnel in south Gaza was foiled by an IDF ambush, which killed some of the terrorists while others apparently fled back into Gaza.
Moreover, most of Hamas’s 1,500 rockets and mortar shells were either intercepted or landed in open areas, without causing any serious damage; only one Israeli fatality has been recorded thus far.
Politically, Hamas is isolated.
It is on the verge of bankruptcy, having been abandoned by its traditional allies Iran and Syria, while Egypt has declared it a terrorist organization.
Therefore, out of desperation, with its back to the wall, Hamas now feels that it has nothing to lose. It has set preconditions for a cease-fire, including lifting the blockade of the Strip; opening border crossings; and the release of West Bank activists recently arrested by Israel, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students.
All of these demands have been rejected by Israel, which has countered with its own demands – first and foremost, to disarm Hamas’s formidable rocket arsenal.
This is how the “routine” has played out: Every day, in fact several times a day, the IDF Spokesman releases announcements about how many targets have been attacked (around 2,000 have been hit thus far, for an average of 200 per day), alongside descriptions of the targets: rocket warehouses, production workshops, underground bunkers, homes of senior Hamas commanders (Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of the political echelon, had his home attacked and demolished on Tuesday night), and more.
Despite the aerial strikes, Hamas has managed to maintain its rhythm of launching between 120-140 rockets per day of various ranges at Israel.
Grad rockets, with a range of 20-40 km., can be launched within minutes and are therefore difficult to locate. The longer-range rockets are more complicated; these are the M-75, J-80 and R-160 (numbers indicate range), which are based respectively on the Iranian Fajr and the Syrian M-302s. They measure a length of about 4-6 meters and weigh 200 kilograms; the J-160, which is a “monstrous” rocket, weighs 500 kg.
Loading these rockets on a launcher requires a crane, which takes time – about 15 minutes. One could assume that some of these launches are operated by remote control and detonated electronically.
IDF forces have been trying to locate these launchers and destroy them. It works like this: The moment visual intelligence (drones and observations) locate and identify the site of the launch, the information is passed to the air force, which instructs its pilots already in midair to destroy the site, with the hope of demolishing the launcher.
Attacking the launchers is the most effective way of reducing the number of rockets fired at Israel. Though it is claimed that Hamas still has 5,000 rockets (4,000 have already been destroyed by air strikes, while a further 1,400 have already been fired), the number of launchers is limited.
The figures on launches and interceptions change by the hour. At press time, the number of rockets and mortar shells launched from Gaza numbered close to 1,400, with 282 intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
A total of 43 rockets hit populated areas and caused some damage, especially to southern cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Sderot, and rural communities on the Gaza border; 1,051 fell in open areas and another 53 disintegrated during launch.
The Iron Dome, of which nine batteries are deployed across Israel, has been crowned “queen of the battle.”
Indeed, together with bomb shelters, it has given the public a psychological sense of security.
But this comforting feeling is deceptive. If Iron Dome were to fail to intercept one of the long-range missiles or if a rocket were to hit an urban area, killing many people, the mood could easily change into one of national depression.
In the event of such an incident or in the absence of a cease-fire, pressure will mount on the prime minister and defense minister, especially from right-wing circles in the cabinet and the public, to escalate the war with a ground assault into Gaza.
So far, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, together with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, have showed rock solid opposition to the idea of invading Gaza.
They fear and know this could be a recipe for adventurism, and is too risky. But the B Trio, as they are known, may not stand up to the pressure next week.
If in the end, a decision is made to enter Gaza, it will most probably be limited in its scope and range. IDF forces would search for hidden tunnels which Hamas, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has built in order to carry out attacks inside Israel.
One idea that has been floated in military circles, in order to destroy the tunnels and prevent Hamas from building new ones, is to dig a wide and permanent ditch along the border and flood it with water.
An Israeli incursion into Gaza may also be more extensive, with larger goals such as the destruction of the organization’s rocket arsenal, but one thing is clear: Israel does not want to topple the Hamas regime.
A senior Israeli officer admitted as much. “We need an address there. We have to think about the day after,” he said.
“The situation in Gaza is very fragile,” he added, “and could easily deteriorate into a Somalia-like condition, with no central authority and run and ruled by dozens of gangsters, pirates, terrorist groups and militias.”