Saturday, May 25, 2024

No End Game In Sight In Gaza

One week into Operation Pillar of Defense, it is hard to see where this ends. At present, the Israeli air force is continuing to strike at Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, but the number of such targets of necessity diminishes with time. And Hamas continues to launch dozens of missiles of variable range at Israeli civilian targets daily. The government has authorized the call-up of 75,000 reserves, and the forces necessary for a ground invasion of Gaza are massed on the border. Yet, it is clear that Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu is in no hurry to launch such an operation for numerous reasons. First and foremost, I hope, is the desire to avoid Jewish casualties in what would be difficult house-to-house fighting. Hamas has been preparing for such an invasion since the end of Operation Cast Lead four years ago and laying its traps. In the densely populated alleys of Gaza, Hamas has home team advantage.

In addition, Netanyahu is still focused on the far greater threat to Israel from Iran. If he feels that there is no choice but to strike at the Iranian nuclear program, he does not want to have already used up whatever minimal international support Israel commands on the inevitable fall-out from a ground war in Gaza.


To date, President Barack Obama has offered Israel all the public support that could have been hoped for. He has made the obvious point that so often escapes the Europeans: No nation in the world would tolerate its civilian population being targeted by missiles from beyond its borders. And while expressing his hope that the missile fire on Israel will end without a ground war in Gaza, he did not rule it out, though it is thought that he privately urged Prime Minister Netanyahu not to launch such an invasion.


Besides wishing to avoid any new friction with President Obama, with whom he will have to live for the next four years, Netanyahu may have another calculation. The United States has potential influence over Egypt by virtue of Egypt’s dire financial straits and the billions of dollars in aid from the United States to Egypt. Despite the ideological linkage between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government and Hamas, which is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, the Egyptian security establishment certainly has no desire to be pushed into a confrontation with Israel on Hamas’s behalf. More important, Egypt’s new government has no desire to endanger its international aid by being seen as supportive of Hamas missile attacks on Israel.


From the Israeli point of view, the most important objective of the current fighting is to deprive Hamas of the Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles that have shown themselves capable of reaching both Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. To that end, Israel bombed a Sudanese arms factory, at which Fajr-5s were being produced on October 23. Nor was that the first time the Israeli air force was sent into action to intercept high-level armaments being transported from Sudan to Gaza via Egypt. In January 2009, Israel bombed an arms convoy attempting to bring fresh armaments to Hamas during Operation Cast Lead.


The Fajr-5 missile is twenty feet long and weighs a ton. It is not easily transported without detection. That means that Egypt could do a great deal more to ensure that the missiles do not reach Gaza via Egypt. In addition, Israeli is very concerned that the eastern Sinai desert will simply turn into another launching pad against Israel and would be very eager for Egyptian assistance in preventing jihadists groups from operating freely from there.


Egypt, however, will only place itself in a potentially confrontational role vis-à-vis the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip if it comes under heavy American pressure to do so. Perhaps Netanyahu is hoping that such pressure will be forthcoming and that such pressure offers the best hope for a long-term cessation of missile attacks on Israel and of Egypt taking action to prevent Hamas from simply replenishing its arsenal.


STILL, THERE ARE serious obstacles to negotiating an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas (apart from the question of whether America will pressure Egypt to do so and whether Egypt would be willing to do so), and it is not likely to come about in a few days. At the same time, there is a limit to the amount of time that such a large number of reserves can be mobilized and the damage of such a mobilization to the Israeli economy can be sustained.


Israel’s killing of Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas terrorist chief, was a major blow to Hamas. He will not be easily replaced, and his initial replacement has already been eliminated as well. Jabari was the mastermind behind the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and he has overseen the importation of Fajr-5s into the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah has never fully recovered from the killing of its terror chief Imad Mughniyeh, and hopefully neither will Hamas recover from the loss of Jabari.


But in honor-obsessed Arab society, Hamas must avenge the killing of Jabari or risk losing face with the Palestinian public. Until it has saved face, it will be unwilling to enter into any ceasefire. Yet, at this point, the only such face-saving “achievement” would be a missile that caused a high casualty toll in Israel. And that would be the one thing that would leave Prime Minister Netanyahu with no choice but to launch a large-scale ground operation in Gaza.


There is another respect in which Hamas and Israeli objectives leave little basis for finding grounds for a ceasefire. Hamas’s principal goal at this stage is to maintain some of its Fajr-5 missiles, with which it can threaten Israel’s most heavily populated areas. Israel’s chief interest is exactly the opposite – the complete destruction of Hamas’s Fajr-5 arsenal. Again, there is no way to split these objectives down the middle to find a basis for a ceasefire.


IN ANY EVENT, past ceasefires have always suffered from two crucial deficiencies. The first is that they have tended to be short-lived, and secondly to be no more than partial even when in effect. There are plenty of jihadist and Salafist groups in the Gaza Strip who do not answer to Hamas’s orders.


Another ceasefire would leave the initiative with Hamas to decide when it is has sufficiently rearmed or if it is time to begin the rocket fire again. For that reason, ceasefires do little to lessen the constant tension under which citizens of the South live, for they have no way of knowing when any temporary lull is about to end.


For too many years, a situation has been permitted in which Hamas or one of the other jihadi groups shoots rockets at Israeli civilians, the Israeli air force strikes back at the launching crew or other pinpointed targets, and then the parties, through intermediaries, go back to observing another lull. Over time, the intermittent firing at Israeli civilians in the South has come to be seen as a normal fact of life. When Israel treats attacks meant to kill Israelis as the new normal, we can hardly be surprised that when Israel does finally respond that the world views Israel has having broken the status quo and accuses her of being the aggressor.


Thus far, Operation Pillar of Defense has commanded overwhelming public support. But should it end with another poorly defined and unenforced lull in the action, which also allows Hamas the luxury of further improving its military capabilities, the public could turn its anger on its leaders. The anger would be most intense among residents of the South if they find that they are being returned to the difficult status quo ante.


TO SUM UP, the Israeli government has shown no eagerness for a repeat of Operation Cast Lead, and properly so. At the same time, now that the battle has been joined, it is hard to see how the situation plays itself out without a reprise of Operation Cast Lead.


In some respects, the stakes are even higher than when Operation Cast Lead began at the end of 2008. Hamas’s possession of Fajr-5 missiles is a “game-changer,” by virtue of placing both Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim in range of Gaza. Yerushalayim residents had little clue what to do last leil Shabbos when the air raid sirens went off just as Shabbos began. In the shul in which I daven, the tefillos continued as normal for want of being able to figure out anything else to do. Not since the first Gulf War in 1991 have air raid sirens sounded in Yerushalayim, and not since 1967 has the city come under fire. One thing that the sirens did achieve was to help Jerusalemites struggling to overcome the feeling that the war is “over there” and not personally connected to us.


One other group who might have been positively affected by suddenly finding themselves the targets of Hamas missiles were the Left-wing demonstrators in Tel Aviv, who demonstrated outside the home of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of having started a war in Gaza to ensure his reelection and deflect attention from the “social justice movement.” Are these people crazy? Are there not enough poor people in the South to elicit their sympathy? Perhaps now that the Iron Dome has shot down three Hamas missiles headed for Tel Aviv, the protestors will have at least a small taste of what the South has endured ever since the Gaza withdrawal.


The Iron Dome anti-missile system had turned out to be the second game-changer from four years ago. To some extent, it nullifies the impact of the Fajr-5s. The system is not hermetic, as the deaths of three in Kiryat Malachi, when a missile hit an apartment building, proved, but its success must have greatly demoralized Hamas. The three Fajr-5s aimed at Tel Aviv were all intercepted. The system not only calculates the path of the incoming missile to determine whether it will land in an uninhabited area – in which case it is ignored – but also the best point in its arc for interception to avoid falling debris. As few as 3% of the missiles aimed at Israel managed to evade the Iron Dome and hit populated areas.


At the very least, the success of the Iron Dome has given Israel’s leaders a little breathing room to see what other options there might be before launching a massive ground operation. 



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