How Israel’s deterrence against Hamas vanished in facts and figure

Alas, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, whom Hamas and Jihad al-Islami genuinely feared – along with the Netanyahu government as a whole – fell for the trap.

IS HAMAS deterred? (photo credit: REUTERS)
IS HAMAS deterred?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Gen. Doron Almog, the head of the Southern Command at the beginning of the 21 century, wrote about Israel’s successful “accumulative deterrence” strategy through painful rounds of war, he knew what he was talking about.
It was accumulative pain of four rounds of war (five, if one is to include the war of attrition) that brought the confrontation Arab states, Egypt and Syria, to the realization that the costs of trying to erase Israel from the world map were not worth it, despite the hatred for the Jewish state.
It was pain, not a change of heart that yielded the most important outcome to date in the Israel-Arab-Palestinian confrontation: the end (at least in the past 35 years) of war between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
Our fighters and heroes killed in these wars hardly fought in vain. This auspicious reality had allowed Israel to reduce military expenditures from 16.5% of gross domestic product in the 1970s to 4.5% in the past decade – a saving that equals two thirds of what Israel spends on its educational system, and two times more than it spends on public health. It also reduced, relative to the growing size of Israel’s population, deaths from political violence by 70% over this period.
Almog was also right in his forecast that the same dynamics would characterize the conflict between Israel and Hamas – a conflict that increasingly resembles the inter-state wars between Israel and the Arab states, where two “armies” are pitted against each other on both sides of a hard and fast border.
Contrary to the false mantra of politicians and media people who lazily claim that “we return to the point after every round,” the data conclusively show that after every one of the three rounds of massive fighting, Hamas – between the rounds – launched 50% fewer missiles, and after the third in 2014, almost 100% fewer. The less than 100 missiles launched in three-and-ahalf years after 2014, were launched mostly by Salafi organizations in order to challenge the Hamas government. The inaccuracy of these missiles (practically the same number fell within Gaza) reflected that fact.
In facts and figures, if in the year before the first round in winter 2008, Hamas and its allies launched more than 1,000 missiles, in 2017, the total number of missiles stood at 35.
But that is only half the story of the accumulative deterrence Israel achieved in its three massive rounds of violence with Hamas. Israel demonstrated to Hamas decreasing willingness to absorb the pain Hamas was trying to inflict upon Israel’s citizens. Israel reacted In Operation Cast Lead in 2008, only after Hamas and its allies launched nearly 3,000 missiles following Israel’s withdrawal three years earlier. By 2012, it launched the second round after absorbing only 636 missiles, and after the third round in 2014 after only 412 missiles hit Israel.
Hamas understood that Israel’s patience wore increasingly thin and reacted accordingly by launching fewer and fewer missiles.  Both Israel’s massive rounds and decreasing willingness to absorb the pain produced accumulated deterrence.
Hamas, strapped for cash, but trying to avoid assiduously a fourth round, decided in March 2018 to test Israeli patience and resolved to develop a model of extortion short of all-out violence, by launching the weekly and then daily “March of Returns.” Through controlled, limited violence, it hoped to achieve concessions from the Israeli side.
Alas, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, whom Hamas and Jihad al-Islami genuinely feared – along with the Netanyahu government as a whole – fell for the trap.
After the third round of massive strikes, one can clearly see in facts and figures that all that accumulative deterrence has simply vanished and that the 100 or so deaths to achieve it might have been in vain.
Since March, Hamas and its allies have launched 1,105 missiles (four were launched before the March of Return campaign), almost equal to the number of missiles Hamas and its allies launched in 2008. The difference between 2008 and 2018 is that in 2008, those missiles elicited a massive round of Israeli punishment in Operation Cast Lead that resulted in hundreds of deaths among the ranks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In comparison, after the recent massive missile strikes, Israel made due with destroying 25 buildings, which were all preceded by warning strikes to make sure no one was killed. 
Israel has since announced the extension of fishing rights to 12 kilometers in the sea – the greatest distance permitted since the Hamas takeover. Previous to the third round, it allowed the Qatari envoy to bring 15 million dollars and 10 trucks of Qatari-paid fuel for Gaza’s electric plant into Gaza to cover Hamas’s hard-core employees, in what Tovah Lazaroff of The Jerusalem Post rightly described like a scene from a movie on the Mafia.
Regretfully, Israel is moving away from the possibility that Hamas will go in the footsteps of the Arab states by learning from pain rather than a change of the heart.
Instead, a chorus of voices believe a strategy of “winning the hearts and minds” of Hamas through concessions to it and through improving the living standards of Gaza’s citizens.
This is a strategy that not only strikes at the tenets of accumulative deterrence that worked so well against Hamas, but will only serve to allow the organization to extract resources from Gaza society to enhance its military capabilities – which the last round clearly revealed. Israel must change direction. Another Operation Cast Lead is necessary.
The writer is senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.