Security and defense: The test of deterrence

Only time will tell if Israel succeeded in its limited goal of achieving quiet on the southern border.

Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a war-fatigued Israel begins its return to ordinary life after an extraordinarily long conflict, many wary residents of towns and villages near the Gaza Strip remain uncertain whether rocket and mortar attacks, which have made their lives a misery, will really come to a halt.
Their skepticism is understandable, and the question of whether Hamas will hold its fire will be the primary test of the IDF’s accomplishments in Gaza.
The goal of Israel’s war effort was modest: To remove the desire from among Hamas’s leadership to continue attacks on Israelis.
To be sure, Hamas’s offensive capabilities have been very badly damaged – from rockets to tunnels to command and control centers, with large numbers of casualties among the terror movement’s ranks.
But the goal of the defense establishment was not to fully destroy the ability of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades to launch rockets.
The IDF’s commanders and the government did a poor job of relating their fundamental goal to the public – of convincing Hamas it was a bad idea to go on shooting rockets. Military and political leaders did state from the outset that their aim was only to achieve quiet, and consistently reiterated this limited objective. But the gap between their perception of the war’s aims and that of the public was large, and the gulf between decision-makers and most ordinary Israelis, only grew as the conflict continued.
As the war dragged on, becoming one of the longest in Israel’s history, Hamas too achieved one of its primary goals: To maintain the ability to continuously terrorize millions of Israelis with rocket fire, despite being under heavy Israeli counterattack.
In fact, the ability to continue firing rockets for a protracted period of time formed the central tenet of Hamas’s guerrilla-terrorism doctrine, and it has succeeded in realizing it.
NEVERTHELESS, THIS was the only success Hamas can boast of.
The rest of its objectives remain unfulfilled, and Hamas agreed to the same truce it had rejected on several opportunities at the start of the war. This fact forms undeniable proof that Hamas’s leaders felt compelled to end the war due to Israeli military pressure.
Driven by the uncompromising line that was pushed by Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s overseas wing, the movement plowed on in a senseless war that failed to secure any of its core demands, before agreeing to a truce it could have secured at the beginning of July.
Today, it has no guarantees of a seaport or an airport (utterly fanciful demands that stood no chance of being met due to Hamas’s large arms program).
It has not secured the release of Hamas members arrested in the West Bank as part of the fallout from the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by members in Hebron; and it was forced into accepting Egypt as a mediator, thereby falling under the influence of a government in Cairo that is as hostile to Hamas as Jerusalem.
In Israel, 4,600 projectiles fell, and 3,600 of them exploded in open territory; 224 rockets and mortar shells fell in built-up areas and Iron Dome intercepted 740 rockets, including around 10 long-range mortar shells, that were heading to populated areas – projectiles that would have undoubtedly caused widespread carnage and mass casualties, in the absence of effective air defenses.
Seventy Israelis were killed in the war – 64 soldiers and six civilians, including two members of Kibbutz Nirim who lost their lives in a Palestinian mortar attack in the last minutes of the war on Tuesday.
The damage in Gaza is enormous, and difficult to fully comprehend. Of the approximately 2,000 Gazan casualties, the IDF estimates that a little more than half are combatant members of terrorist organizations, most of them from Hamas.
More than 300,000 Gazans are internally displaced persons, and thousands of buildings used by Hamas as operational bases have been destroyed.
The Israel Air Force struck 5,263 targets throughout the course of the war, destroying most of Hamas’s rocket production facilities, many of its rocket storage sites, surveillance centers, command and control centers, military offices used to coordinate attacks, training camps and terrorist infrastructure in mosques and multi-story apartment buildings.
Hamas planted its offensive assets deep within Gaza’s civilian population center. Yet it is doubtful the movement knew the extent of the destruction it would bring to Gaza at the start of the war, meaning that the Gazan regime badly underestimated Israel’s determination to reinstate its deterrence and not allow itself to be extorted into concessions by acts of war and terrorism.
On the Israeli side, too, IDF Military Intelligence underestimated Hamas’s determination to continue the war for a lengthy period – one of the reasons IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman mistakenly called on residents of Gaza border communities to return to their homes in the first week of August, three weeks before a real truce was reached.
Military Intelligence did a phenomenal job of mapping out Hamas’s military assets, and in guiding the air force, ground forces and navy to those targets. But its reading of the intentions of Hamas leaders to stay in the ring for 50 days was flawed, and it will need to examine itself to determine why that was the case.
From the perspective of the IDF, both defenses and offenses worked well on the whole. The home front was largely spared from the destruction of the rockets by Iron Dome. The ground offensive left a Hamas cross-border tunnel network, which took five years to construct, in ruins after two weeks of ground operations; the air force, guided by intelligence, inflicted heavy damage on Hamas’s various tentacles.
At no time in the operation did Israel aim to topple Hamas or destroy its military wing, guided by the reasoning that a weakened, single regime is preferable to all-out chaos and a power vacuum that could be filled by a plethora of Islamic State-like militias that cannot be deterred under any circumstances.
“We do not deceive ourselves. We live in the Middle East. It is possible that we may have to return and act against Hamas and the other terror organizations,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned on Wednesday during a press conference.
His comments reflect a sobering truth; no one yet knows if Israel has succeeded in convincing Hamas to hold its fire.