Israel needs to change its strategy against Hamas - opinion

We need new rules of engagement that won’t wait until there is a reason to shoot and worry about the response.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett says ‘Our new rule is, whoever sends attackers, pays.’ While this sounds tough, it’s still a reactive statement of intent, says the writer.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett says ‘Our new rule is, whoever sends attackers, pays.’ While this sounds tough, it’s still a reactive statement of intent, says the writer.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

There is arguably no greater symbol of Israel’s reluctance to go on the military offensive than the Hamas observation and sniper tower which overlooks the Israeli community of Netiv Ha’asara.

This simple structure, erected around half a year ago, was built to threaten by its presence hundreds if not thousands of Israeli civilians – men, women and children – going about their daily lives.

Its continued presence is an affront to the security that the State of Israel is supposed to provide to every single one of its citizens.

“Our new rule is: Whoever sends attackers, pays.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

Nevertheless, recent events have put it into even sharper contrast.

 A MEMBER of Hezbollah watches as two Lebanese soldiers are posted on a lookout tower near the border with Israel, 2018. Israel can’t annihilate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, due to its elusiveness, strength and the cost for Israel, says the writer.  (credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90) A MEMBER of Hezbollah watches as two Lebanese soldiers are posted on a lookout tower near the border with Israel, 2018. Israel can’t annihilate Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, due to its elusiveness, strength and the cost for Israel, says the writer. (credit: BASEL AWIDAT/FLASH90)

After rocket fire from Gaza into Israel last Saturday, Israel responded with a few strikes, including on the cabin of the observation tower, destroying it but not the structure itself, meaning it could be easily and speedily rebuilt. Which it was only a few days later.

According to reports, the IDF preferred not to take out the whole structure because it would have endangered Hamas operatives on the ground. Instead, it is now being reported that Israel’s reaction to the observation tower is simply to move the entrance to Netiv Ha’asara so it is no longer visible from the tower.

Unfortunately, this episode sends another clear message to Hamas and other enemies of Israel that they are winning, and the Jewish state will only react to events lightly and not take the necessary steps to defeat them.

Israel has to start changing the equation, and fast.

Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the other day that “Our new rule is: Whoever sends attackers, pays.” While this sounds tough, it is still a reactive statement of intent.

It says to our enemies that they can sleep comfortably in their beds because Israel will not come to hunt and destroy them and their capability to harm Israelis.

LEST ANYONE think that purely reactive statements are unique to the current leadership, previous prime ministers have not been much better.

In 2018, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “There’s no tolerance for spillover, no ‘drip-drip’ [of rockets] — they get hit immediately.”

The so-called “zero tolerance” for attacks by Hamas has been oft stated, by the current and former prime ministers, as well as Defense ministers Gantz, Ya’alon and Liberman.

What Israel and its citizens need is an offensive policy, a strategy which does not wait for the other side to threaten or strike, but that puts it constantly on the run and fearing for its existence.

One that eventually makes it feel the pressure of unpredictability enough that it accepts defeat.

To win wars and conflicts, a state and its army has to be unpredictable, pushing the enemy on the back foot to a point where it feels it is no longer worth pursuing its war aims.

Israel and Hamas

At the moment, it is Israel that is constantly being pushed onto the back foot by the unpredictability of Hamas.

The terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip has used mass charges towards the border fence, incendiary balloons and attack tunnels under the border to keep one of the best equipped and technologically sophisticated armies on its toes.

With each Hamas tactic, Israel tries to develop a sophisticated response which sometimes costs the state and its tax-paying citizens billions of dollars, such as an underground anti-tunnel barrier.

These are short term and failed answers to Hamas, because they just move on to their next tactic. They drain Israel’s economy and resolve at the same time with their simplistic but effective military tactics.

The enemy knows the pain it is inflicting on Israel and sees in our weakened resolve to take the fight to the enemy as an indication that they are on the right path.

Time for a new strategy

AFTER REBUILDING the observation tower, Hamas put up a warning sign in broken Hebrew to Israelis watching only yards away that they will be driven “Out of Palestine soon... The destruction of the enemy is near.”

These are the unfortunate words of an enemy confident in its mission. It sees that in reaction to the construction of a simple observation tower, the State of Israel, an OECD member which spends almost $25 billion annually on its military, decides the best course of action is to hide Israeli civilians from sight.

This is not just cowardice, it is a losing strategy, which merely emboldens our enemies near and far.

If Israel is to survive long-term, it must finally go on the offensive.

It must be unpredictable and change the rules of the game.

The asymmetrical nature of this war is that while Hamas will seek any excuse to kill Israeli civilians, Israel will not even kill Hamas combatants for fear of escalation.

We need new rules of engagement that won’t wait until there is a reason to shoot and worry about the response.

This needs to become a major issue in the upcoming elections, and every leader and party should make their position clear on this point.

Regardless of elections, Israel must take out the observation tower once and for all, without warning or care for those manning it. This is a relatively minor action, but can signal the start of a new strategy that will change the equation and lead Israel towards victory.

The writer is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University and a deputy editor for the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.