How to make sure the next operation in Gaza is not futile: opinion

The fourteen years that have passed since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip have made it clear that the time has come for Israel to adopt a new strategy to meet the Gaza challenge.

The idea that in a future security escalation the State of Israel and the IDF will conquer Gaza, defeat terrorism, and destroy Hamas capabilities is irrelevant, although Israel could certainly achieve this goal if it decided to do so.

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

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

In the event of a total invasion, Israel would suffer enormous damage to its international legitimacy. Tens of thousands of Gaza 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 obliged to do if it overthrew the Hamas regime, this would cost it NIS 13-16 billion per year.

Members of the Al-Quds Brigades march during a military parade in Gaza City, October 15, 2021 (credit: ATIA MOHAMMED / FLASH90)

A scaled-down operation, involving only an air campaign, something Israel has done repeatedly since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, would not provide any long-term strategic gains, as past operations have shown. The most this would accomplish is to remain silent for several months or perhaps even a few years, but it would not succeed in stopping Hamas terrorism and it would not stop Hamas’s military build-up.

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

So what has been accomplished after Operation Guardian of the Walls in May? Hamas, once again, has grown stronger. When Egyptian delegations enter the strip to facilitate diplomacy mediated with Hamas, the terrorist faction is perceived on the Palestinian street as “the defender of Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, Hamas’ destabilizing activities in the West Bank challenge both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, 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 hunt down Hamas tentacles throughout the region rather than being dragged into Gaza.

Furthermore, decision makers in Israel must consider that the upcoming war in Gaza will serve no useful purpose at all. 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 started talking about the need to develop multi-domain capabilities. In the game of diplomatic, military, cognitive, and cat-and-mouse ingenuity, Hamas has created a strategic challenge of the highest order for Israel.

Hamas is aware of the limitations it has imposed 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 boldness.

As a result of the above, a new military strategy is essential for Israel. Signs of this new approach could already be seen during the May escalation when the precision of the missiles and Israel’s ability to carry out precise strikes against Hamas targets were on display. Matching the size of the bombs to their targets to reduce noncombatant casualties was a key feature of Israel’s approach.

This is part of a global military trend in combat arenas that has seen warheads adapted to target size to avoid collateral damage in attacks carried out in response to emerging terrorist threats; This development is the result of an understanding of the limits of Western military power.

Israel relied more on cyber capabilities and targeted assassinations in the latest round, and these tactics should be the seeds of Israel’s next response to Hamas’ rocket bombardment of Israeli cities. Rather than unleashing a time-limited ‘beast’ of an operation, Israel should declare an open season of highly surgical strikes and remove Hamas personnel and capabilities at a time that is beneficial to it. The following operation must not start as a declared operation. This can be announced in advance 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 change. While any Israeli government always faces a political trap during security escalations, and public pressure to resort to family responses during Gaza escalations is acute, a larger trap would be to empower Hamas with another limited-time military operation.

Not least, on the diplomatic-political front, Israel must allow the gradual, albeit unofficial, integration of Gaza into Egypt. Egypt is the party that today leads the reconstruction of Gaza. Allowing Gaza to become 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 make money from taxes on imported goods from Egypt, as is indeed happening today, while Egypt-led international aid programs would help improve the quality of life for civilians in Gaza. The more Hamas can be tied to dealing with economic, civil and political affairs, the more Israel’s interests are served and the further the next war is delayed. This development would deprive Hamas of its status as a “defender of Jerusalem” and undermine its cognitive achievements from the May escalation.

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

The war with Israel is what keeps Hamas relevant. Hamas needs victims and headlines to dominate the Palestinian and Arab arenas, as well as the pro-Palestinian arena around the world. On the other hand, the fact that Hamas is absorbed into an Egyptian reconstruction plan serves Israel’s interests.

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

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

Should Hamas once flood Israeli cities with rockets, the government should take a deep breath, trust the Iron Dome to deal with the initial attacks, and then launch an open campaign, a campaign of strategic attrition and targeted attacks, which could last a year or more, with no stated term.

The expiration date of repeated intensive Israeli operations as a toolkit to deal with Gaza has expired. Encouraging Hamas to participate in the Gaza economy and deal with Egypt, as it gradually merges with Egyptian influence, should be the new Israeli strategic game in the city.

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

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