Is an Expanded Military Operation in Gaza the Option of Choice?
INSAS Policy Brief No. 5 May 27, 2007
At the Israeli cabinet meeting on May 13, the primary topic of discussion was the need to expand military operations in Gaza in light of the ongoing Qassam rocket fire and the increasing strength of armed groups in the Gaza Strip. The cabinet meeting ended with a decision to step up preventive actions against Qassam fire, including targeted killings and the entry of small forces into territories near the border. No decision was made to undertake wide scale land operations in the Gaza Strip, as recommended by some elements in the IDF (in the Southern Command). In the meantime Qassam fire has continued, and there is growing pressure to expand the operations.
Following the cabinet decision and the continuing Qassam fire, a view common in certain circles both inside and outside the IDF has garnered new momentum: that wide scale land operations in the Gaza Strip are unavoidable, and that only the trauma from Lebanon is preventing the Israeli government from making this necessary decision. These expanded operations are unavoidable, the theory goes, because first of all there is no other way to stop the Qassam fire, which is exacting an unbearable price from Israel. A sovereign state cannot tolerate a situation in which residents of its towns are harassed on an ongoing basis by rocket fire and cannot maintain a normal routine, even if the damage and the number of casualties are limited. Another reason is that the continuing, uninterrupted flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip and the avoidance of action against armed groups in Gaza together allow these groups to grow stronger, to organize, to train, and to become further entrenched, and thus gradually to build a threat in the Gaza Strip akin to the Hizbollah threat that Israel was hard-pressed to confront in Lebanon. It follows that Israel must adopt a policy of wide scale preventive operations with the goal of causing serious harm to armed groups in Gaza and preventing them from turning into such a threat. Some even claim that Israel must acquire complete freedom of action in the Gaza Strip, similar to the freedom of action it enjoys in the West Bank. Such freedom of action can be attained only by operations like Defensive Shield, whereby the military power of the armed Palestinian groups is broken in the initial stage by comprehensive attacks by the IDF, which assumes control of extensive territory in the Gaza Strip.
The purpose of this paper is to examine whether military actions of this kind in the Gaza Strip are indeed essential, and if so, whether it is worthwhile to conduct them as soon as possible.
There are two ways to examine whether wide scale operations of this kind are necessary. One is to examine the supposition that the security and political dynamic in Israel will necessarily force the decision to carry out such operations. A second way is to examine the strategic logic of such operations. Even if the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, which means there is a high probability that the government of Israel will reach such a decision, there is still reason to undertake the second examination because it will aid in planning operations, which will serve Israel's best interests.
The Security and Political Dynamic
As a result of the Second Lebanon War there is a negative mood among the Israeli public, and the lack of confidence in the government is unprecedented. The chief lesson from the war, emphasized in the Winograd Commission's interim report, is the need to weigh carefully whether decisions on military operations are compatible with the ability of these operations to achieve realistic military objectives that will realize Israel's strategic goals. All of these were added to the basic Israeli reluctance, dating from before the war in Lebanon, to be drawn back into the "Gazan swamp," and in fact they have prompted the government to hesitate and deliberate seriously before making a decision on any comprehensive military action in Gaza.
As long as there are almost no casualties from the Qassam fire it is easy for the government to hesitate and proceed cautiously and judiciously. The problem is that while the Qassams are not a very effective weapon and the warning systems also reduce the chances of fatal casualties, the ongoing firing of Qassams increases the statistical probability that ultimately there will be one incident with a relatively large number of casualties (where a school or kindergarten is hit, for example) or an accumulation of casualties. In addition, the unimpeded and growing power of the organizations in Gaza is facilitating a gradual improvement in the range and effectiveness of the warheads of locally manufactured rockets. It is also facilitating the smuggling of limited numbers of rockets of military quality (Katyushas). This process increases the probability of more casualties and in the longer term places additional areas within range of the rockets. There is also a possibility of additional Palestinian actions that will not be successfully foiled, like the one that led to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. In such situations the government would come under heavy pressure for a strong response.
The conclusion is that in fact, there is a not insignificant probability that the government will be forced at a certain stage to decide on wide scale military operations in the Gaza Strip.
The Strategic Logic
Israel's strategic interests, which must be taken into account with every decision, are as follows: - Continued separation from the Gaza Strip population (the demographic issue) and less friction with the population - Ensuring normal life for the Israeli population in areas bordering Gaza - Strengthening Israeli deterrence, or at least maintaining it - Stopping the armed groups in the Gaza Strip from growing stronger, or at least curtailing them
There are several reasons for the rocket fire that has emanated from the Gaza Strip since Hamas took upon itself a limited ceasefire (tahdiya): - The ceasefire's restriction to the Gaza Strip: the understanding between Israel and the Palestinians on a ceasefire was limited to the Gaza Strip only. Israel's continued preventive actions in the West Bank lead to Palestinian deaths from time to time. There will always be groups in Gaza who will respond with rocket fire at Israel in order to take revenge and to try to create an equation of mutual deterrence with Israel. - The clashes between Palestinian organizations and the state of anarchy in Gaza: not all the organizations were parties to the tahdiya. Prominent among them was Islamic Jihad, which continued its terrorist attacks along with a variety of groups that have no clear organizational and political identity. The anarchy, the non-functioning Palestinian government, and the continuation of often violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas made it entirely impossible to impose the ceasefire on the turbulent groups. The state of anarchy also generated motivation to fire rockets at Israel as a tool in the internal struggles. The rockets fired in recent rounds of violence are a typical example. Their purpose is to divert attention from the reciprocal lethal violence, to place the blame for the deterioration on Israel, and perhaps even to push Israel toward action that would contain the internal clashes. - In addition, it can be posited that Hamas, which is also frustrated that the establishment of the national unity government has not yielded the hoped-for results
· - removal of sanctions and the government's ability to function effectively
· - is interested in continuing a limited level of violent activity against Israel, even if there is a tahdiya. In this sense its behavior is similar to Hizbollah's, which
· - though it transferred most of its activities to the domestic political realm after the IDF's withdrawal from southern Lebanon
· - was interested in maintaining a limited level of violent confrontation with Israel. The more Hamas is convinced that Israel, the West, and Fatah have pooled their efforts to prevent the government from functioning and ultimately to reverse the results of the elections, the greater its motivation to continue firing at Israel.
There are no military ways of completely preventing rocket fire at Israel by returning fire from within Israel. However, it is possible to strike at some of those involved in rocket fire and at the rocket manufacturing and storage infrastructure, and thereby to reduce the extent and effectiveness of the rocket fire. It is possible to prevent rocket fire almost completely by taking control of the launching areas and clearing them of armed elements, a process that is necessarily relatively extended because the territory is saturated with armed operatives. This means that even after an area is taken over, it will continue to serve as an area for launching rockets until it is cleared through a slow, sustained process, yet once Israeli forces leave the area, the threat will be renewed in its previous form. At the same time the intensity of the rocket fire from areas the IDF has not taken control of will increase. This has two main implications: - In order to prevent rocket fire by military means, permanent military control over wide areas of Gaza will be required for the long term. - These areas will be expanded as the range of the rockets increases, and they are likely to include almost the entire territory of the Gaza Strip.
A broad military operation in Gaza connotes the total collapse of the tahdiya and full mobilization by Hamas to fire rockets. This means that in the initial stage, the military operations will result in a significant expansion of the scope of rocket fire and the damage it causes.
A significant blow to the increasing power of the organizations also requires a broad action over time. This means taking control over wide territories in the Gaza Strip and retaining a permanent presence in at least some of them, such as the area of the Egyptian border, in order to allow action against the weapons-smuggling tunnels. If the goal is a security situation similar to that in the West Bank, a broad action is needed against all the armed groups, i.e., taking control of most of the Gaza Strip and operating there for an extended time.
The Gaza Strip is a military challenge of a different kind from what the IDF faced in the West Bank just prior to Operation Defensive Shield. The Palestinian forces that confront it are on a much larger scale, with a higher level of organization, arms, and training. The physical setting is also different: a crowded urban expanse that covers a large part of the Gaza Strip. It is impossible to separate the armed elements from the population because the population has nowhere to escape to. The various groups, especially Hamas and Fatah, are now engaged in a violent confrontation, but a wide scale Israeli operation will stop the confrontation between them and unite them all in the struggle against the "Israeli invasion." This means that the fighting will be more difficult and involve greater losses.
This analysis suggests that only a comprehensive military operation that brings about the conquest of a large part of the Gaza Strip and whose forces subsequently remain in the territory
· - initially for a prolonged period of mopping-up operations, and later to maintain control over the area
· - can achieve by military means the objectives of: preventing rocket fire and assuring normal life in areas of Israel near the Gaza Strip; dealing a significant blow to the power of the organizations in the Gaza Strip; and restricting the smuggling of weapons to them. The problem is that the price of the operation is liable to be high, both in direct losses from the fighting and in the price the civilian population will have to pay in being subject to widespread rocket attacks for a not insignificant period of time, until the territory is taken over and cleared.
As for the effect on the balance of deterrence, it can be assumed a successful operation will aid in preserving Israeli deterrence, but the risks involved in a wide scale operation and the price Israel is liable to pay are likely to harm the achievement of this objective. This is because in the region's perception, as well as the domestic Israeli mindset, the ability of the organizations to harm Israel is seen as a victory for them even when they are defeated. Wide scale operations might also elicit a tough international response, because the international community does not understand why Israel reacts in a way that seems disproportionate to the provocation.
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However, all these prices pale in comparison to a calculation of the damage that will be inflicted on the strategic objective of separation from the Palestinians, whose goal is to preserve Israel as the democratic state of the Jewish people. Israel will be drawn back into the Gaza Strip. It is also possible that the chaos that will be created in Gaza will cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and will require Israel to renew its military administration of the Gaza Strip, including the elements of civil administration, in order to provide services to the population. In any case, large forces will have to continue to remain within the Gaza Strip.
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The main conclusion is that in light of the limited damage caused by the export of violence from the Gaza Strip, Israel would do well to be cautious and not succumb to the illusion that there is a comprehensive solution to the Gaza Strip problem. It is not clear what advantage Israel enjoys if dragged back into the Gaza Strip and forced to pay a much higher price for an achievement that harms a key Israeli interest.
Even if the political-security dynamic leads to a situation where the Israeli government would feel obligated to respond very harshly and take control over territories in the Gaza Strip, there is no reason to advance that moment. The argument that a preventive action must be launched to keep the organizations from growing even more powerful is not sufficiently convincing. First, in the past even an Israeli presence in the Philadelphi Corridor did not prevent weapons smuggling and only limited it to some extent. Second, Israel can also exploit the time remaining until the moment when the confrontation seems inevitable. One lesson Israel would do well to learn from the war in Lebanon is that the unsatisfactory results of the ground war stemmed largely from the lack of sufficient preparedness by Israel, and not just from Hizbollah's preparedness. It is not inevitable that the Palestinians, who suffer from sanctions and heavy financial constraints along with increasing numbers of violent clashes among the various groups, would exploit this time for the better. It is also unclear if Hamas's turning into a force with more attributes of a regular military force will necessarily be to the IDF's detriment. For a military force of a state, dealing with this kind of armed force may be easier.
A better understanding of the price of a comprehensive operation to conquer extensive territories in the Gaza Strip must also influence the definition of objectives of the operations if and when Israel needs to engage in more massive responses to stop the escalation of rocket fire. It must lead to an understanding that it is better to adopt more limited objectives with a lower cost, even if that means partial solutions that only limit Qassam damage, the lack of a comprehensive solution to the problem, and the continued existence of armed groups in Gaza. So, for example, continuing action to hunt down rocket launching squads; continuous strikes at the organizations involved in rocket fire, their assets, and their leadership; and taking control over confined launching areas can be effective in reducing the continuity and effectiveness of the rockets, and at least in pushing Hamas to want to renew the limited ceasefire. From this point of view the IDF's action following Gilad Shalit's kidnapping is a positive model. It exacted a heavy price from Hamas and motivated the organization to return to maintaining the limited ceasefire.
Although Israel is now in the eye of the storm of the escalation in Gaza, it must take into account that even this wave can subside. As in the past, Hamas and Fatah can be deterred from sliding into a full scale civil war and can calm the violent confrontation between them. Then Hamas's interest in a ceasefire will also be renewed, especially if it pays a heavy price during the process. In such an event Israel will have to examine whether there are not also political and diplomatic means of reducing the threat from the Gaza Strip. In this context the following points are worth noting:
·· - Action to strengthen and expand the tahdiya to areas in the West Bank can make a significant contribution to reducing the number of Qassams fired. There are many risks in extending the ceasefire to areas in the West Bank, and it is necessary to examine what arrangements and understandings can be reached with the Palestinians that can neutralize these risks. ·
· - The chaos and civil war in the Gaza Strip do cause damage to the armed groups in the short term, but they also harm Israel's interests. This situation prevents any chance for the development of a Palestinian interlocutor that can interact with Israel, and this internal situation is also one of the main reasons for the recent Qassam fire. Israel must examine how it might contribute to stop the process of deterioration in Gaza. In this context it should examine how the following factors contributed to this deterioration: the unwillingness to work with the Palestinian unity government; the continuing sanctions against it; and at the same time, the encouragement of Fatah elements to engage in a confrontation with Hamas. ·
· - Experience has shown that intensive diplomatic activity vis-a-vis Egypt motivates it to undertake more vigorous action and helps to limit smuggling from Sinai to Gaza.
Finally, in light of the increasing probability of wider scale military confrontations in the Gaza Strip, it is appropriate for the IDF and the political establishment to start intensive preparations for this eventuality. They should not make do with only detailed military planning, equipping the troops, and training them for these operations. The top political and military echelons also need to prepare conceptually by engaging in defining realistic objectives and the means of achieving them, and in examining various scenarios through war games as well.
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