Analysis: IDF readying for Gaza incursion - but not yet

IDF's multiyear training and procurement plan takes into consideration a wide range of threats and challenges Israel will face in the coming years.

IDF tank 88 (photo credit: )
IDF tank 88
(photo credit: )
The IDF's multiyear procurement plan, presented earlier this week by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, takes into consideration a wide range of threats and operational challenges the State of Israel will face in the coming years. There are the looming existential threats like global jihad and Iran, which is expected to obtain nuclear power by the end of the decade, as well as concerns over regional stability due to America's failure in Iraq. There are also threats like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While they do not threaten Israel on an existential level, they are still persistent and unrelenting security concerns. The most significant boost in the IDF's five-year procurement plan will be given to the ground forces, with new Merkava tanks and hundreds of new armored personnel carriers planned to be produced in the coming years. New weapons are also being brought into service, such as medium-range antitank missiles for all IDF infantry brigades. The training in the IDF is also continuing at a rapid pace. The budget for training in 2007 was double that of 2006. Next year's budget will have an additional NIS 200 million. The shift in IDF mentality reflects a basic understanding that not only conventional ground battles against Syria are still possible; it is also just a matter of time before Israel will need to face off on the ground against Hamas. Despite this understanding, at the moment, Israel does not want to be the one to initiate war on either front. That can be seen in the security cabinet's decision on Wednesday to hold off on launching a massive Gaza incursion in response to the recent bombardment of Sderot, and to instead maintain the current policy of targeted killings from the air and close-to-border operations on the ground. Militarily there are several options for the IDF in addition to all-out invasion. Firstly, the IDF can try to increase the number of targeted killings against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist leaders. In 2005, a wave of such strikes pushed Hamas to accept a six-month cease-fire, during which there were very few Kassam rocket attacks. While this option has the potential to minimize the rocket fire, it is extremely difficult to obtain the needed intelligence to carry out the strikes. There is also great risk involved. When putting all of its emphasis on targeted strikes, the IDF risks botching a mission and repeating the events of last summer when, within eight days, three air strikes killed 13 Palestinian civilians. Despite this, the understanding in the defense establishment is that a ground invasion is inevitable, something along the lines of 2002's Operation Defensive Shield, when IDF troops invaded all of the major Palestinian cities following a series of suicide bombings. An operation in Gaza will be limited by time, but will also not be in-and-out. To really hurt Hamas and Islamic Jihad and impair their ability to fire rockets, IDF troops will need to enter deep into the densely populated and heavily built-up Palestinian territory to hunt down terrorists, Kassam manufacturing plants and weapons caches. Troops will most likely take up positions along the Philadelphi Corridor in southern Gaza where dozens of tunnels are used to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza. The problem with a large-scale operation right now is that the timing is off. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is busy preparing for the November peace summit in the US; a major operation that would most definitely draw many casualties would cause its cancellation. The IDF is also still concerned about the possibility of war with Syria; an operation in Gaza could turn that fear into a reality. Sderot is also not yet protected as well as the defense establishment would like. And let's not forget that the High Holy Days and Succot are less than a week away. But there are consequences for postponing the ground invasion. While the Kassam rockets now reach the southern outskirts of Ashkelon, the defense establishment believes it is only a matter of time before the Palestinians succeed in extending their range until Ashdod and Kiryat Gat. Hamas is no longer a small-scale terrorist group that carries out suicide bus bombings. Today, in Gaza, Hamas has established an army of 12,000 soldiers, including commando units and anti-tank and mortar squads. The longer we wait, the more difficult the inevitable might become.