The opportunity in Gaza

A serious blow to Hamas and other Islamist organizations in Gaza is a signal of Israeli determination to battle the rising Islamist forces in the region.

Islamic Jihad operatives 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Islamic Jihad operatives 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has stated several times that a large-scale operation in Gaza is inevitable. If he is right, this is the time. Postponing the inevitable is likely to increase the cost.
The obvious reason for silencing the forces that have been attacking Israel from Gaza is that no nation should tolerate massive military attacks against its civilians. We cannot allow the forces in Gaza to fire hundreds of missiles against Israeli cities as they have in recent days. Moreover, their ability to strike at strategic installations such as a port, a power station, an airbase and even Dimona must be eliminated. If no action is taken, these attacks will surely increase.
What most terrorist organizations fear most is that their organization – especially their leadership – will be destroyed. Gaza is small enough that Israel can find and destroy most of Hamas’ military leadership, as well as the leadership of Islamic Jihad and the other organizations that have been firing missiles at Israel. It is likely that doing so would reduce the missile fire on Israel from Gaza for a much longer period than Operation Cast Lead did.
The goal of Cast Lead was to deter missile fire by dealing a blow to Hamas. It provided relief for over a year. The goal this time should be to destroy the Hamas military organization and the forces that have been firing at us. This stronger action will give more relief, at a not much greater diplomatic and political cost.
Clearly, the deterrence created by Cast Lead is wearing thin. Recent attacks from Gaza show that Cast Lead, which took place only three years ago, was too limited an action, rather than an excessive one. Military action now could restore deterrence.
In addition, striking a serious blow against Hamas and other Islamist organizations in Gaza would be a signal of Israel’s determination to battle the rising Islamist forces in the region, buttressing Israel’s standing among those powers in the region and elsewhere which fear the Islamist wave.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT reason for acting in Gaza now is that Israel is presumably considering an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. By taking the current opportunity to act in Gaza, Israel can greatly reduce the missile retaliation it would face if it does so.
Not only would most or all of the Gaza missiles and the organizations preparing to use them be destroyed, but deterrence against missiles from Lebanon and elsewhere would be increased. Such an action in Gaza would also increase the international perception that Israel really might attack Iranian nuclear sites.
In addition, today’s political conditions seem appropriate for Israeli action. The government is stable and would draw large popular support for putting an end, even for a while, to the terror against its citizens. In contrast, Hamas is currently weak and divided as its political leadership had to leave Syria and there are tensions with Iran.
Furthermore, one of the effects of the fluidity and uncertainty in Egypt and Syria is that neither country can focus on dealing with Israel right now. They are too busy with domestic power struggles. And it would be better for Israel if whoever ends up in control of those countries has a fresh reminder of Israel’s ability and willingness to protect itself.
Finally, because of the election campaign in the US it is likely to be safer for Israel to act against missile attacks from Gaza now rather than in eight months. From now until November the US is likely to restrain rather than promote international action against Israel in response to an action in Gaza.
These political circumstances indicate that the diplomatic costs in the international arena might be minimized, although it is not impossible that a Gaza operation could start an unexpectedly harmful train of political or diplomatic consequences.
If the IDF capitalizes on this opportunity, the operation must end with unequivocal victory. This time the Philadelphi Corridor (at the Egyptian border) must be taken in order to encircle Gaza. If Israel completes the job this time, by pursuing and destroying Hamas’ military and leadership, it will also make it clear that its objective is not civilian destruction but the defeat of the forces that have been attacking and threatening Israel.
The IDF should be able to capture or kill the majority of the leadership and “officer corps” of Hamas and the other fighting forces in Gaza – as well as their existing stockpiles of missiles and advanced weapons and many of their files and computers – every physical component of the organizations that have been attacking Israel.
This is what the kind of unequivocal victory Israel needs would look like – although it cannot be a free or final victory.
Although an Israeli action in Gaza could significantly increase Israel’s security, we have to keep in mind that Israel cannot gain any final victory. There is a good chance that Hamas would be able to restore itself in a year or so – if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t prevent it from doing so. In any event Gazans and their outside supporters will create new organizations to fight Israel.
Even though Israel can destroy a large share of the military equipment that has been smuggled into Gaza in the past several years – which will be an important benefit for the next year or two – we must assume that sooner or later other weapons will be smuggled in to replace them. Israel will probably have to “mow the grass” again.
Israel can never win this war, but it can lose it. That is, the state of Israel can be destroyed but the Palestinians and the Arab states cannot be. To protect itself from Arab determination to eliminate Israel, Israel has to define specific victories that provide large improvements in its security – military and diplomatic, and the IDF must do what it takes, including suffering necessary casualties, to make sure that it achieves those victories.
In international relations, despite fine words, weakness provokes criticism and contempt, while strength and success – even limited success – create respect, and sometimes support.
Efraim Inbar is a professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. Max Singer is a Hudson Institute founder and senior researcher at BESA.