Civil Fights: Lebanon's lessons for Gaza

A major ground operation in Gaza, inadvisable a year ago, is now a viable option.

katyusha 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
katyusha 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The most stunning element of last week's Knesset report on the Second Lebanon War was its unanimity: Following 16 months of study, all 17 members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, representing the entire political spectrum, signed a document stating that the war's major failure was the delay in launching a large-scale ground operation. "Locating Katyusha [rockets] from the air was an almost impossible task, nor could they be neutralized solely from the air," the report stated. "Despite this, no comprehensive ground campaign was launched until the end of the war. The IDF [thus] failed in achieving the war's main operational goal - suppressing the Katyusha fire." Instead of exploiting its vastly superior size and technology, the report continued, the army adopted tactics that "played into Hizbullah's hands": sending in relatively small forces and confining them to a few kilometers near the border, thus enabling Hizbullah's far smaller "army" to meet them on almost equal terms. Moreover, the IDF's refusal to attack the "nature reserves," or fortified areas where most Hizbullah forces were concentrated, left these forces free to strike at our soldiers - and civilians. Two left-wing MKs signed the report with the reservation that they nevertheless opposed a major ground operation (preferring a swift cease-fire). Yet 15 Knesset members - 10 coalition and five opposition, from Labor on the left to National Union on the right - declared that such an operation should have been launched. THIS CONCLUSION has obvious implications for the other front where Israeli civilians are under ongoing rocket fire. And the committee did not shy away from them: At a press conference on the report, Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi, of the prime minister's Kadima party, stated that while no formal vote was held on the subject, a majority of panel members favor a major ground operation in Gaza to suppress the Kassam rocket fire on Sderot. In Gaza, the army has been trying for years to suppress this fire through a combination of aerial attacks and small ground operations near the border, with the same notable lack of success these tactics had in Lebanon: The number of missile strikes on southern Israel soared from 270 in 2005 to over 1,000 in both 2006 and 2007. "I start from the assumption that everyone who signed this report, which states that reliance on [these tactics]… was a mistake, assumes that it is equally a mistake on another front," Hanegbi explained. Moreover, another major flaw identified by the report was the inaction of successive governments as Hizbullah positioned itself along the border, constructed fortifications and massively expanded its arsenal following Israel's pullout from Lebanon in 2000. That inaction, the report said, "reduced the army to paralysis and weakness." In Gaza, too, Hamas has exploited Israel's pullout to smuggle in massive quantities of arms and construct fortifications. "An absolute majority of committee members believes that we must not repeat in Gaza the mistake we made for years in Lebanon, and that there's no escaping a frontal operation," Hanegbi said. UNFORTUNATELY, the government disagrees. Instead, it is reportedly discussing another tahadiyeh (cease-fire) with Hamas - an absurd idea on two counts. First, the last truce (which began in November 2006 and gradually disintegrated) was a total failure: While Hamas largely stopped firing rockets - except on special occasions such as Israel's Independence Day - it allowed other groups, such as Islamic Jihad, to fire at will. Thus throughout the "cease-fire" Israel continued to suffer almost daily rocket attacks. Second, Hamas has been explicit that all it wants is a brief lull to enable it to prepare for the next round. As one senior Hamas official told Haaretz, a tahadiyeh is "of short duration, only a few months" - and would be conditional on Israel allowing Gaza's borders to reopen. In other words, Hamas wants a few blockade-free months in which to stockpile arms and materiel, after which the war will resume with it in a stronger position. Yet should the cease-fire initiative fail, the government's fallback plan is equally intolerable: simply continuing the same ineffective tactics for another 30 months or more until the missile defense system whose development it finally budgeted last month is deployable (mid-2010 at the earliest). Beyond the obvious problem that since the system does not yet exist nobody knows if it will ever be practicable, much less when, Sderot cannot simply be left to endure daily missile attacks for another several years. Granted, the Kassams have thus far caused few casualties, but living in constant fear - never knowing when and where the next rocket will hit - is simply not tenable long-term. IN LEBANON, a major ground operation might well have failed, given that our chief of staff at the time was a pilot who had no clue about what ground forces were for or how to use them, and that the troops were scandalously untrained in the relevant maneuvers. For the same reasons, such an operation in Gaza would have been inadvisable a year ago. However, our new chief of staff is a ground forces veteran, and has devoted the past year to intensive troop training. Thus what was unfeasible before is now a viable option. The most basic obligation any country owes its citizens is protection. Most Israelis understand that; consequently, a solid majority supports a major operation in Gaza to suppress the Kassams (69 percent, according to last August's Peace Index poll). Now a bipartisan Knesset panel has confirmed, following an in-depth investigation, that this is indeed the correct tactic and expressed bipartisan support for applying it in Gaza. Upon announcing the panel's backing for a Gaza operation, Hanegbi declared: "The government must take the committee's position into account." Yet the government has proven repeatedly that protecting Sderot is low on its priority list; left to its own devices, it will continue doing nothing. Hence the committee's job now is to use its parliamentary power to force the government to act on its findings. Otherwise, it may as well start preparing its next report - on how and why the south, too, was abandoned to enemy fire.