The ground offensive into the Gaza Strip that the IDF launched Thursday night represents the ultimate in asymmetric warfare.
Israeli tanks, ground forces, artillery, drones, special tunnel detection equipment — all with massive air and naval cover — are moving deliberately west from the Gaza-Israel border fence in a methodical search for tunnels (eight unearthed so far), rocket launchers and Hamas opposition. They are opposed by Hamas’ Ezzedine a-Qassam brigades with their endless supply of inaccurate home-made rockets, their anti-tank rocket launchers and their record thus far of failing to do serious damage to Israel or Israelis.
The toll of dead Gazans will now skyrocket to the many hundreds, mostly civilians. Dead Israelis can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. Iron Dome will shelter Israelis; nothing will shelter Gazans.
Is all this justified, or should Israel be accused of massively over-reacting? I would argue that it is completely justified, and for two reasons.
First, Hamas can end the war whenever it decides to be reasonable. Lest we forget, Hamas started this war and has restarted it after two ceasefires. It has turned down Egypt’s formulae for a permanent ceasefire and countered with lists of bargaining demands that cause Egyptian TV commentators to speculate laughingly that next the Gazan Islamists will demand Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a condition for ending the war.
Second, the Israel Defense Forces correctly understand the kind of asymmetric warfare that is required against a guerilla/terrorist enemy like Hamas: attrite and decimate, but don’t look for a spectacular victory; save Israeli lives and if possible the lives of Palestinian civilians; seek at all costs to avoid either a major “game-changer” accidental Israeli atrocity or the abduction by Hamas of an Israeli soldier. At all times have in mind strategies for extracting the IDF from Gaza and avoiding prolonged occupation.
This means very cautious use of masses of forces, which is exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon are doing.
This sense of legitimization is shared by the vast majority of Israelis. Nevertheless, Israel can expect the world to ratchet up the pressure on it with every passing day and night to cease its ground operation. It is very much a sign of the times that it can count, first, on surprisingly outspoken support from Cairo with its strong anti-Islamist bias and its own concerns regarding Hamas-supported terrorism in Sinai, and second, on relative indifference on the part of Washington. The latter is preoccupied with Iran (the nuclear talks) and Iraq (stopping ISIS) and has seemingly thrown in the towel on trying to adjudicate Israeli-Palestinian differences. Besides, it has no levers of pressure over Hamas and it has muddied its relations with Egypt’s President al-Sissi, who is very much the key figure in ending this. Both Cairo’s and Washington’s behavior is virtually without precedent in the annals of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
How will this end? The dynamic of interaction between the fighting in Gaza and negotiations centered in Cairo that began a few days ago points to a probable answer. At some point, Hamas will soften its conditions and Israel will throw in an economic-humanitarian gesture or two. The Hamas military wing, which has taken over Hamas decision-making from the movement’s Islamist politicians, will fire a last salvo of rockets on Sderot, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv and declare victory by virtue of having survived Israel’s onslaught.
An asymmetric victory: it will have survived because Israel wants it to. In Islamist terms, the alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza is either a volatile Somalia-like fragmentation of this tiny territory or rule by even more extreme movements. Hamas’ “victory” will quickly be understood as a disaster for the Strip’s Palestinian population.
Nor will a weakened Hamas, maintaining yet another fragile, off-and-on ceasefire with Israel, concede to rethink the tragic course of action it has followed in Gaza for the past seven years. After all, that would mean adopting a non-Islamist strategy of accommodation with a Jewish state. Accordingly, when eventually Hamas again attacks Israel, the debate over Israel’s strategy for dealing with it will be renewed.
That debate currently features Foreign Minister Lieberman and a handful of extreme right-wingers demanding that the IDF go all the way, reoccupy the Strip and finish off Hamas once and for all. These political actors ignore the prohibitive cost of this course of action in Israeli and Palestinian lives and international condemnation. True, unlike Netanyahu they actually have a strategy for dealing resolutely with Hamas. But they have no exit strategy for ending re-occupation with its onerous burden of feeding nearly two million angry Palestinians while the world condemns us. Hence most Israelis wisely reject their ideas.
In contrast, diverse strategic thinkers of various political persuasions advocate offering to talk to Hamas, opening up Gaza’s borders and channeling development aid to the Strip. But they run into Hamas’ stubborn refusal to talk to Israel, as well as disapproval by al-Sissi and remonstrations that Israel should talk first to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank.
This brings us full circle to the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations whose abject failure a few months ago triggered the series of events—Palestinian unity government, terrorist abductions and murders, re-arrest of freed Hamas prisoners, tunnel attacks from Gaza—that got us into this war. Not only does Netanyahu not have a viable strategy for Gaza. Considering that he needs a two-state solution in order for Israel to remain Jewish and democratic, he doesn’t have a viable strategy for the West Bank, either.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. His book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies will be published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.