Long-term risks in Israel’s short-term conflict avoidance in Gaza

Israel’s strategy of management and conflict avoidance threatens to lead to its encirclement.

Palestinians protest next to the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as it is seen from its Israeli side March 30, 2019 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Palestinians protest next to the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as it is seen from its Israeli side March 30, 2019
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On March 25, following a rocket launch from Gaza that injured a family near Kfar Saba in Israel’s rarely attacked central region, families and citizens throughout the country felt the now very familiar prelude to war.
Like in December 2008, November 2012, July 2014, and numerous times since then when an Israeli invasion of Gaza seemed all but assured but did not materialize, another operation in Gaza appeared imminent.
During this most recent standoff, someone close to me, a university student and recent father, was called up for reserves to equip, train and be on standby for a potential incursion into Gaza. Nearly all Israelis have been here before; they, a family member or a close friend being called up from their daily lives to prepare to fight in Gaza.
While Israelis acutely understand the necessity to defend the nation, no one is tremendously pleased to be called from university, parenthood, work, or everyday life to go into a violent conflict zone where they might be injured or killed. Those with family and friends preparing to go into harm’s way breathe a sigh of relief when tensions deescalate, and the immediate threat of war recedes.
It has been nearly 14 years since Israel withdrew from Gaza, nearly 12 years since Hamas took full control over Gaza, and over a decade since Israel’s first major ground operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead (in which I took part). Although far from peaceful, the past five years have been the quietest yet since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in terms of casualties and violence, as well as the longest period without a major Israeli operation in Gaza since the Disengagement.
As Seth Frantzman explained in his analysis titled “The ‘Existing is Resisting’ Gaza Protest is Working” (The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2019), Israel’s strategic management of the Gaza conflict without large-scale ground invasions since 2014 has worked well for Israel in the short-term. Frantzman is completely right in his conclusion that this dynamic is most likely to persist in the near term, although if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manages to put together a stable coalition, which appears likely, Israel may be more at risk regarding military action in Gaza.
Frantzman is also correct in pointing out that Israel leads in the learning curve in its conflict with the Gazan factions, with Israel’s technological capability to manage the Gazan militants outpacing the growth their capability to harm Israel. However, the long-term trend might not be as much in Israel’s favor.
Can technology beat well-entrenched, massed firepower indefinitely? Perhaps.
However, continued advantage is not assured.
COMBINED WITH the far more formidable enemy Hezbollah to its north, and with persistent Iranian entrenchment and precision missile basing in Syria, Israel’s strategy of management and conflict avoidance threatens to lead to its encirclement.
Israel must complement enhancing defenses with offensive actions, even if it risks escalation, in order to prevent enemy entrenchment and armaments from getting too strong. It also must not allow deterrence to erode through extreme hesitance to kill terrorists lest it start a war. Targeting enemy entrenchment appears to be Israel’s strategy in Syria, where it fights a far more sophisticated campaign against a far more formidable opponent in a far more volatile diplomatic arena.
In Gaza, if Hamas and the Gazan factions can entrench and arm themselves enough to withstand an assault like Operation Protective Edge – and for as many days or longer, while continuously firing at Israel in volume, with rockets reaching Tel Aviv – even with Iron Dome this would be a costly conflict for Israel, its economy, its international image and its people. Israel must act to prevent a status quo from taking hold where Gazan militants are emboldened.
Israel needs a “between wars” strategy for Gaza (Yadlin 2019). It must aggressively work to improve its relative position and act to prevent and degrade Hamas entrenchment and maintain deterrence. Israel should maximize its window for destroying enemy infrastructure in Gaza, and level a harsh response to severe escalations, potentially targeting Hamas and other Gazan militants. Certainly, it should continue to act strictly to minimize civilian casualties; this is a strategic as well as moral imperative that Israel understands well (Lappin 2015). However, avoiding a conflict forever does not seem likely.
Israel must not appear unwilling to fight despite the relative success of conflict avoidance throughout the last five years. Israel will likely periodically have to conduct large-scale operations in Gaza to prevent an erosion of deterrence and to degrade terrorist capabilities, a strategy some have referred to as “mowing the grass” (Inbar and Shamir 2014).
After the recent election, if a stable government emerges, there may be incentives for Israel to be more aggressive, especially if the citizens of the South continue to face a harsh reality which the government has yet adequately dealt with. When Israel does go to war in Gaza, the nation rallies behind the conflict and the Israel Defense Forces. During Protective Edge, public support topped 90% (Gidda 2014). Hopefully the Gazan factions recognize this, and Hamas will enforce quiet until the next flare-up.
The writer is an IDF veteran (Golani 51 2007- 2009), a University of Virginia PhD candidate in International Relations and a national security analyst with the Association of the US Army.