Analysis: The weather favors Hamas

The air campaign in Gaza has all but run its course, and now is the time to switch focus.

gaza op rain 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza op rain 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
According to the Israel Meteorological Institute there is still a possibility of very light rain in the Center and South on Thursday, and it will get significantly cooler. On Friday it will be fair and slightly warmer, but still cooler than normal for the season. On Saturday, it will be partly cloudy-to-clear with a rise in temperatures and a drop in humidity. But this is not a weather report - it is a crucial element in the diplomatic and operational calculations of the Israeli leadership for the next few days. The air campaign in Gaza has all but run its course, and now is the time to switch focus - either to a ground operation or a cease-fire. The hesitation we are seeing, choosing neither option, is reminiscent of the indecision displayed during the Second Lebanon War. The IDF has not followed up on its initial operation with any comparable, meaningful strike on Hamas. Air force jets are striking buildings they have already hit, for example Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh's office, a sign that the IAF is running out of "high-quality" targets and going after whatever it can. Once in a while it hits a valuable target, like a mosque doubling as a rocket silo. In the meantime, the bad weather has not stopped the IDF from starting a YouTube channel and fighting on Facebook. Apart from that, the only ones doing real shooting at this stage are the pilots, who have begun playing Hamas's game, chasing down individual rocket launchers and rocket crews. This is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and this particular haystack is currently hidden under dark rain clouds. Our unmanned aerial vehicles are unable to operate efficiently through the clouds, and Hamas is using the cover to fire rockets at the South. UAV's and pilots can't fly under the clouds because they'll get shot down, and they can't fly above them because they can't see through them. And as it is winter, daylight hours are at a premium - providing Hamas rocket crews with even more cover. Clouds and darkness suit Hamas; sunshine, clear skies and dry ground suit the IDF. Sending ground forces into Gaza under the current weather conditions is not ideal. The heavy tanks and troop carriers will find it hard to maneuver in mud, and make slow moving targets for small, nimble Hamas anti-tank crews on off-road motorbikes, as they did for Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War. The bad weather and depletion of strategic targets has given Hamas breathing room to strike back hard. Hamas has been hit hard, even if it is still able to fire rockets and possibly bog down an Israeli invasion. It has lost hundreds of fighters, and it knows that it is very vulnerable to Israeli attack. But it is in no way down and out. Israel would do well to move the game back onto its playing field, which is the ability to choose strategic targets and to hit them hard, like we did in the first two days of the current operation, in which hundreds of Hamas targets were struck, including weapons stores and smuggling tunnels. We need to do this, either from the air or from the ground, and if we can't, we need to move toward a cease-fire. What we cannot do is send in ground forces into an extremely hostile battlefield without a clear mission and an exit strategy. The cabinet's decision not to agree to the French proposal for a 48-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" stems from the rejection, for now, of the situation where Hamas has established a balance of terror in which it can paralyze the entire south of Israel. The country's leadership feels it has not achieved sufficient deterrence against Hamas yet. Israeli intelligence believes that Hamas's rocket range currently ends at 40 km., but Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi says the cease-fire option is not realistic as it would only give Hamas more time to build its military capabilities. More time means longer rocket ranges, eventually putting Holon and Tel Aviv under fire, Hanegbi says. There are currently 800,000 Israelis under Gazan rocket threat, a number that would quickly expand, he says. This is not easy to hear, but Israel is not all-powerful, and to change this balance of terror it will have to invade the Gaza Strip and remove the Hamas regime - something that will cost Israel dearly in casualties. Hamas will not give up on its goal of destroying Israel and it will always try get better rockets with longer ranges. This situation already applies in the North, and Israel could soon have two terrorist armies on its northern and southern borders that it cannot defeat, but only hope to deter. Eventually Israel and Hamas will agree to a cease-fire, most likely in the coming few days, and regardless of the terms, Hamas will learn that Israel has no stomach for fighting on the ground. It will also learn to shoot at Israel in winter, and to hunker down in summer. Both leading candidates for prime minister have vowed to remove Hamas from power should they win the elections in 41 days time, but preelection promises are one thing, and post-election realities are quite another, and it remains to be seen whether either Tzipi Livni or Binyamin Netanyahu will fulfill their promises. In the meantime, former foreign minister and current Likud MK Silvan Shalom says the IDF is dozens of times stronger than Hamas and can destroy it. Shalom also says there is massive public support for the idea that Hamas needs to be destroyed. If this is true, it represents a serious disconnect between what the public at large feels and what senior defense officials think. While there are soldiers, especially in the Southern Command, who believe the army can and should destroy Hamas from the ground, there are many others who think that goal is unattainable and that the most Israel should aim for now is to firmly deter Hamas from attacking Israelis. What Israelis want to do to Hamas and what can actually be done by the IDF are two very different things. The aim of the current operation is to hurt Hamas sufficiently to make it not want to fire at Israel. Earlier this week, a top military official said the goal of a ground operation would be to show Hamas that Israel is not afraid of placing IDF boots on the Gaza ground. The question that goal raises is: when does that lesson end? What is the IDF estimate for the time that lesson will take to sink in at Hamas military HQ? Is this a realistic, tangible goal? The next few days will tell. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs