Analysis: Fighting Hamas in the shadow of 2006's mistakes

Have the lessons of the war against Hizbullah been learned?

Gaza strike fire 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Gaza strike fire 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Israeli air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza on Saturday mark only the beginning of an ongoing operation aimed at restoring long-term calm to the Kassam-battered South, Israel's leaders say. The policy of restraint, officials add, is over. The goal, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday night, is to put an end to more than seven years of "insufferable" rocket attacks and "indiscriminate terror." Olmert was presumably seeking to differentiate from the failures of the war against Hizbullah in south Lebanon, two and a half years ago, when he stressed that this operation had been thoroughly planned and prepared. But the memory of that misstewarded resort to force looms large over this conflict. And the key questions today include those that, it turned out, had not been effectively addressed when the first air assault on Hizbullah was ordered in July 2006: Are the goals clear and realistic? Do they provide for a viable exit strategy? And has the political and military leadership truly prepared for the complications, surprises and failures that surely lie ahead. One key difference: Hamas is plainly far less well equipped than Hizbullah was. In contrast to 2006, Israel's leaders are not talking about destroying the enemy as an aim of this confrontation. But the ostensible aims of the "Cast Lead" operation amount to requiring Hamas not to behave like Hamas - not to fire into Israel or target Israeli civilians or soldiers; not to prepare for such attacks; not to store or smuggle in the material for such attacks. And that is not going to be achieved quickly. Of course, Israel may choose to settle for less. But for now, it is adamant that long-term calm is the goal, no matter how prolonged or bitter the conflict that ultimately yields it. For months, Israel has been refining its intelligence information on the key physical locations that are crucial to the rule of Hamas in the terror state that the Gaza Strip has become since the Islamist group seized power there in June 2007. And rather than seeking to target the nimblest offshoots of that terrorist rule - the Kassam crews that set themselves up in residential Gaza neighborhoods, fire into Israeli residential areas and then quickly melt away - Israel has elected to shoot into the belly of the beast. The first wave of Saturday's air strikes targeted Hamas training bases, military facilities, weapons stores and other locations used by the Hamas security apparatus; Hamas has some 15,000 armed men in the Strip, defense officials estimate. In the second wave, targets included underground rocket-launch sites - where Hamas had readied rockets for remote-control fire. Other such sites, as well as weapons stores and factories, located near schools or on the lower floors of apartment blocks, were not touched. At this stage. Defense Ministry officials, from Ehud Barak on down, were preparing the Israeli public Saturday for what they said was likely to be a difficult and lengthy period of confrontation ahead. Hamas is capable of firing 200 rockets and shells per day into the South, they said. Hamas itself is threatening a further escalation in rocket fire - with missiles reaching to Beersheba - and the mobilization of a new wave of suicide bombers. The word from the defense establishment on Saturday was that preparations were in place for an intensification of military action, with the potential use of ground forces, officials said. No major call-up of reserves was under way but, again, the preparations were in place should it be deemed necessary. The international fallout, even amid the relative inattention of the Christmas-New Year period, began remarkably quickly, with a chorus of calls for Israeli restraint, including predictable fury in the Arab world and a vehement protest from France at Israel's ostensibly disproportionate response. As the military operation unfolds, it will rapidly become clear whether Israel has made parallel diplomatic preparations, with articulate officials prepped and ready to highlight to the watching world how untenable the situation facing off against Hamastan has become, notably since Israel pulled all its civilians and all military infrastructure out of Gaza in 2005. No matter how effectively Israel articulates its narrative, however, it would only take one misdirected attack, with heavy civilian casualties, to ensure a replication of the dramatic shift in international opinion that occurred early in the war against Hizbullah. After civilians were killed in the basement of a building hit by Israel, adjacent to a Katyusha launch zone in south Lebanon, a previously relatively supportive international community turned bitterly critical in an instant. The longer the military operation goes on, the more strident the international criticism will become. Hamas, whose indifference to the deaths of fellow Palestinians was manifest when it killed many of them in seizing power in Gaza 18 months ago, will not easily succumb to Israel's demands. Will Israel succumb to those of the international community? Olmert has relentlessly insisted that he was the man best placed to oversee the rehabilitation from 2006 - from a war mismanaged by an inexperienced prime minister, a defense minister (Amir Peretz) who was entirely unqualified for the job, and a chief of staff (Dan Halutz) who placed exaggerated confidence in the air force's capacity for destroying carefully protected underground infrastructure and a highly mobile Hizbullah fighting force. We are now going to find out whether those lessons from the confrontation with Hizbullah - on military preparation, on the need for effective military-political coordination, on operating in an immensely complex regional and global context, and on setting realistic goals for the use of military force - were indeed carefully learned.