Analysis: Air power alone won't force the Hamas response that Israel wants

Hamas appears confident of riding out this crisis.

iaf jet 298 63 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
iaf jet 298 63
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Hamas rolled the "iron dice" with its decisions not to renew the cease-fire and to escalate attacks on southern Israel. Thus far in Operation Cast Lead, the Israel Air Force has focused on two pillars of Hamas power in Gaza: its military and security forces, and the infrastructure that supports the organization's ability to govern. The IDF has not gone after Hamas's leadership in any systematic way. Hamas's defensive priority now is the protection of high-value targets, especially leadership and any special capabilities it has acquired, such as anti-tank, anti-aircraft or anti-ship weapons, for use against a major Israeli incursion. Hamas will attempt to bring its military forces to full readiness to confront an Israeli ground incursion by mobilizing and moving forces into defensive positions, providing them with arms and ammunition, activating command and control systems, and readying whatever tactical surprises it has prepared. Offensively, Hamas has limited options, especially given the pressure of ongoing IAF attacks, increased IDF presence along the border, Israeli civil-defense measures in the South, and a broad security alert throughout the country. It will attempt to sustain rocket attacks for as long as possible to demonstrate its potency and to create pressure within Israel to end the operation. Hamas will also likely attempt to carry out suicide attacks within Israel and against the border crossing points, including operations by Izzadin Kassam cells and other Palestinian terrorist organizations based in the West Bank. Politically, Hamas's behavior since the 2006 elections has limited its options. It must first rally support within Gaza, its power base, and keep the support of the population, as it is currently attempting to do by projecting defiance and deflecting blame. Diplomatically, Hamas could hope to gain support from the Arab world and its allies, play the humanitarian card, and work toward some accommodation with Egypt. Initial reports indicate mixed prospects for success, with some verbal support from within the EU, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nothing, however, has been concrete. The Arab League does not seem to be in a hurry to come to Hamas's rescue, and Egypt has publicly blamed Hamas for the situation while criticizing the IDF action. Hamas could work to achieve an accommodation with Fatah and the PA, but this appears unlikely, since they do not seem inclined to let Hamas off the hook, even though they have condemned the Israeli operation. Hamas could also leave open the possibility of an arrangement with Israel to end the current fighting. Although Hamas would attempt to do this on as advantageous terms as possible, in the end it would probably settle for any arrangement that would leave it in power. Operation Cast Lead has generated anti-Israel street demonstrations in the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East, and these could grow more intense as the conflict continues. Hamas will use its own media outlets as well as those in the Arab world to stoke similar types of activity. The situation may escalate beyond the current level for several reasons. First, Israel does not want to return to the cease-fire conditions, which left much of the political and security initiative with Hamas and allowed it to expand its military capabilities. Second, now that the conflict is under way, the war will have its own dynamics, including "mission creep" for the IDF, Israeli domestic pressures to finish off Hamas, civilian casualties on both sides, and the requirement to respond to Hamas's military moves. While Israel was able to precisely control the start of the conflict, it is unlikely that the IDF will so precisely control its course. Obviously, a much deeper and broader crisis would involve the spread of violence to the West Bank, or to the North with Hizbullah. Hamas attacks based in the West Bank could create a crisis between Israel and the PA, unless rapidly and successfully brought to a halt. The PA would have to walk a difficult line, balancing Israeli pressure to act against Hamas terrorist cells and internal Palestinian pressure to either help Hamas or at least avoid any cooperation with Israel. Attacks on Israel by Hizbullah would move the conflict to a regional one, risking the resumption of full hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah, with the possibility of dragging in Lebanon and Syria. Although this kind of escalation seems unlikely in the current situation, a broad-scale operation in Gaza could increase pressure on Hizbullah to act. In conclusion, Israel's use of air power limits Hamas's ability to respond, but also limits the scope of damage Israel can inflict. Hamas is a resilient and adaptive organization that has faced crises before, and it appears confident - at least in public - following months of preparation for renewed hostilities. It is questionable whether air power alone will force Hamas to respond the way Israel wants, since it could attempt to ride out the attacks until diplomatic pressure forces Israel to end IDF operations. And since Israel knows that Hamas will do its utmost to avoid the consequences of its failure to renew the cease-fire, the IDF will escalate the scope of its military actions when deemed necessary. Thus the current conflict does not appear likely to end quickly, with plenty of dangerous potential for widening and escalating in intensity. For its part, Israel seems determined to change the situation in Gaza in critical ways and is prepared to run the necessary political, diplomatic and military risks. Israel did not rush into this fight; it will not rush out of it either. Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq and the Levant.