image Photo: Flash90

How to make sure the next Gaza operation isn’t pointless

Since 2007, Israel has repeatedly engaged in scaled-down operations involving only air campaigns.

The fourteen years that have passed since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip have made it clear that the time has come for Israel to adopt a new strategy in dealing with the Gaza challenge.

The idea that in a future security escalation the State of Israel and the IDF will conquer Gaza, vanquish terrorism and destroy Hamas’s capabilities is not relevant, even though Israel could certainly achieve this objective were it to decide to do so.

When it comes to a major Gaza offensive, the key question for Israel is not what it can do, but what is right for it to do.

Thus, while Israel is perfectly capable of launching a major air campaign and a ground offensive to topple Hamas in response to the next rocket barrage, it is the last thing Israel should do.

In the event of a full-ground invasion, Israel would sustain enormous harm to its international legitimacy. Tens of thousands of Gazan casualties would likely result from such an operation, as well as hundreds of Israeli casualties. If Israel establishes a military government in Gaza to provide civilians with basic services – which it would be obligated to do in the event it toppled the Hamas regime – this would cost it NIS 13-16 billion per year.

A scaled-down operation, involving only an air campaign – something Israel has done repeatedly since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, would provide no long-term strategic gain, as past operations have demonstrated. The most this would achieve is quiet for several months or perhaps even a few years, but it would fail to stop Hamas’s terrorism and it would not halt Hamas’s military build-up.

The net strategic gain from such operations is therefore difficult to see. After multiple Israeli operations, Hamas remains in power, Palestinian Islamic Jihad remains intact and the Palestinian Authority has almost no say about what happens in Gaza. Long-range rocket production, construction of tunnels, manufacture of drones and development of a naval force have not stopped – Hamas is investing millions in its military buildup.

So, what has been accomplished following Operation Guardian of the Walls in May? Hamas has, once again, been strengthened. When Egyptian delegations enter the strip to facilitate mediated diplomacy with Hamas, the terror faction is perceived on the Palestinian street as “Jerusalem’s defender.” Meanwhile, Hamas’s destabilizing activities in the West Bank challenge the PA and Israel alike, while the Islamist group is also active in Turkey and Lebanon.

It seems that no matter what military actions Israel launches in Gaza, Hamas returns in new sectors, like mushrooms after the rain. Therefore, Israel’s first directive should be going after Hamas’s tentacles across the region rather than being dragged into Gaza.

In addition, decision-makers in Israel need to consider that the next war in Gaza will serve absolutely no useful objective. Every round of combat since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 has left Hamas on its feet, emerging stronger than before.

Hamas has been engaging Israel in a multi-domain conflict before the IDF even began speaking about the need to develop multi-domain capabilities. In the diplomatic, military, cognitive and cat-and-mouse game of wits, Hamas has created a strategic challenge of the first order for Israel.

Hamas is aware of the limitations it has placed on Israel’s use of force, and the limitations it has imposed on Israel in the international arena, and this is the source of its daring.

As a result of the above, a new military strategy is critical for Israel. Signs of this new approach could already be seen during the May escalation when Israel’s missile precision and ability to conduct pinpoint strikes on Hamas targets were on display. Adapting the size of bombs to their targets in order to reduce noncombatant casualties was a key feature of Israel’s approach.

This is a part of a global military trend in combat arenas that has seen the adaptation of warheads to the size of the target to avoid collateral damage in strikes conducted as a response to emerging terrorist threats – this development results from an understanding of the limits of Western military power.

Israel relied more on cyber capabilities and targeted assassinations in the last round, and these tactics should be the seeds of Israel’s next response to a Hamas rocket barrage on Israeli cities. Instead of unleashing a time-limited ‘beast’ of an operation, Israel should declare an open season of highly surgical strikes, and pick off Hamas’s personnel and capabilities at such a time that is beneficial to it. The next operation should not start as a declared operation. This can be announced ahead of time, or the government can wait to declare this new reality at the start of the operation.

There is reason to believe that Israel’s leadership is beginning to see the need for this shift. While any Israeli government always faces a political trap during security escalations, and public pressure to resort to familiar responses during Gaza escalations is acute, a greater trap would be to empower Hamas with yet another time-limited military operation.

No less importantly, on the diplomatic-political front, Israel must enable the gradual – albeit unofficial – integration of Gaza into Egypt. Egypt is the party that is leading the reconstruction of Gaza today. Enabling Gaza to turn into a de facto ‘state between two states’ – Israel and Egypt – is a process that is already underway. Allowing this to happen would force Hamas to focus its energies on maneuvering in the Arab arena, which is a less comfortable arena for it than dealing with Israel.

Hamas could earn money on taxation of goods imported from Egypt, as indeed is happening today, while Egyptian-led international aid programs would help raise the quality of life for Gazan civilians. The more Hamas can be tied down to dealing with economic, civilian and political matters, the more Israel’s interest is served, and the further away the next war is pushed back. This development would rob Hamas of its status as “defender of Jerusalem,” and undermine its cognitive achievements from the May escalation.

Hamas desperately needs money for the stability of its regime. Israel’s central objective should therefore be to force Hamas to deal with its economic needs and to encourage it to abandon war – because armed conflict is Hamas’s bridge to increasing its power base in the West Bank.

War with Israel is what keeps Hamas relevant. Hamas needs casualties and headlines to dominate the Palestinian and Arab arenas, as well as the pro-Palestinian arena worldwide. On the other hand, Hamas being sucked into an Egyptian reconstruction plan serves Israel’s interest.

One must hope that the government in Jerusalem understands these strategic calculations and adopts them as it makes new decisions. The more Gaza is connected to Egypt and the less connected it is to Israel and the West Bank, the better.

This is the Palestinian-Israeli trap. Support for “two states for two peoples” in actuality ends up meaning two Palestinian states.

Should Hamas once against flood Israeli cities with rockets, the government should take a deep, long breath, rely on Iron Dome to deal with the initial attacks, and then launch an open-ended campaign – a campaign of strategic attrition and targeted strikes, that could go on for a year or more, without any declared deadline.

The sell-by date of repeated Israeli intensive operations as a toolkit for dealing with Gaza has expired. Encouraging Hamas to engage in Gaza’s economy and dealing with Egypt, as it gradually melts into Egyptian influence, should be the new Israeli strategic game in town.

The writer concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the civil department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). He is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute.