The Opportunity in Gaza

By and March 15, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 167

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel has to respond to the attacks from Gaza with a large-scale military operation. If no such action is taken, the attacks against Israel will surely increase. Gaza is small enough so that Israel can destroy most of the terrorist infrastructure and the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organizations. The goal would be to restore deterrence and to signal Israeli determination to battle the rising Islamist forces in the region. By acting now in Gaza, Israel will also greatly reduce the missile retaliation it would face if and when it strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities. Political conditions seem appropriate as Hamas is divided, most of the Arab world is busy with pressing domestic issues, and the US is in the middle of an election campaign.

This Perspectives Paper is a revised version of an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post on March 14, 2012.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz 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 its 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 by a neighbor. We cannot allow the forces in Gaza to fire hundreds of missiles against Israeli cities as they have in recent days. If no action is taken, the attacks against us will surely increase. Moreover, their ability to strike at strategic installations such as ports, power stations, airbases, and even Dimona must be eliminated.

The thing that most terrorist organizations fear the most is that their organization – especially its leadership – will be destroyed. Gaza is small enough so that Israel can find and destroy most of the Hamas military leadership and the leadership of Islamic Jihad and other groups that have been firing missiles at Israel. It is likely that doing so would reduce the amount of missile fire on Israel from Gaza for much longer than Operation Cast Lead did. The goal of Cast Lead was to deter missile fire by giving a blow to Hamas. It provided relief for more than a year. The goal this time should be to destroy the Hamas military organization and the forces that have been firing at Israel. This stronger action will provide more relief at almost the same diplomatic and political cost. Clearly the deterrence created by Cast Lead, which was effective for a while, is wearing thin. Recent attacks from Gaza show that Cast Lead, only three years ago, was too limited an action rather than an excessive one. Military action now could restore deterrence.

In addition, 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, which will buttress Israel’s standing among those powers in the region – as well as elsewhere – that fear the Islamist wave.

Another important reason for acting in Gaza now is that Israel is presumably considering an attack on the nuclear sites of Iran’s revolutionary government. By taking the current opportunity to act in Gaza, Israel will greatly reduce the missile retaliation it would face if it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. 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 increase. Such an action in Gaza would also bolster credibility in the international community that Israel really might attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

Nowadays, political conditions seem appropriate for Israeli action. The Israeli 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 at least Egypt and Syria is that neither country can focus on dealing with Israel now. They are too busy contesting for internal power. It would also be better for Israel if whoever ends up in control of those countries has a fresh reminder of Israel’s power and readiness to protect itself by acting against those who attack it.

Finally, because of the election campaign in the US, it will likely be safer for Israel to act against missile attacks from Gaza now rather than 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 instigate 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. The Gaza Strip is small enough that Israel can prevent most Hamas forces and leadership from running away. If, this time, Israel completes the job by pursuing and destroying the Hamas military and its leadership, it will be more effective than Cast Lead. This will also make it clear that Israel’s objective is not civilian destruction but the defeat of the forces that have been attacking and threatening its citizens. 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 destroy their existing stockpiles of missiles and advanced weapons, plus many of their files and computers – every physical component of the organizations that have been attacking Israel. This would be the kind of unequivocal victory Israel needs – although it cannot be a final victory.

Although an Israeli action in Gaza can achieve a significant increase in the protection of Israel from enemy fire for some time, and other security advantages, Israel cannot attain an everlasting victory. There is a good chance that Hamas would be able to restore itself in a year or 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 last 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 those captured and destroyed by Israel. Israel will probably have to “mow the grass” again.

Israel can never win a war in the way it can lose a war. That is, the State of Israel could be destroyed, but the Palestinians and the Arab states cannot be. To protect itself from the 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.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]