Analysis: A wary reassertion of Israel’s deterrence

By David Horovitz January 6, 2009

Hamas’s hopes and expectations are gradually fading, but the Israeli positives can disappear in an instant

After 10 days of Israel’s assault on Hamas, the Islamic group, as might easily have been predicted, is still firing rockets into Israel and vowing to bring new Israeli population centers into range. The IDF is now said to control the Gaza areas from which three quarters of the rockets have been fired in recent weeks, and still the Kassams come.

Less predictably, the Hamas leader mouthing declarations of further aggression from Gaza on Tuesday, ‘foreign minister’ Mahmoud Zahar, did so almost inaudibly from some kind of gloomy bunker, behind an uneven table, in front of a camera that he appeared to have set up himself.

Ten days in, predictably, anti-Israel demonstrations are still flaring around the world, and most media coverage is hostile to Israel – determinedly resistant to the inconvenient truth that there would be no violence in Gaza were Hamas not at its root, and that there will be further violence if Hamas is not rooted out. Less predictably, most of the demonstrations are still relatively small in scale, articulate Israeli officials are rebuffing some of the more outrageous misrepresentations, and the Israeli public relations cause is being aided from some unlikely quarters.

Israel’s Channel 2, for instance, broadcast an extraordinary exchange that aired on an influential Arabic TV station, in which an Egyptian guest castigated a Hamas spokesman for the misguided use of rocket attacks against Israel.

‘Where has your strategy got you?’ the Egyptian guest mocked bitterly. ‘How much territory has it liberated? Do you even have the guts to acknowledge, as Hizbullah acknowledged, that you misjudged the likely Israeli response?’

The Hamas official sat open-mouthed through this onslaught.

And when he finally mustered a response, it was to lamely berate his antagonist for daring to criticize Hamas rather than Israel.

More critically, 10 days in, the Israeli political echelon has resisted the impulse to brag about military successes. We’ve heard briefings from army and intelligence officials trying to assess how badly Hamas’s capacity to harm Israeli civilians has been damaged, but no 2006-style boasting about imminent victory.

Most importantly, there is every sign that the IDF is a far wiser machine than it showed itself to be when confronting Hizbullah.

The shattering air assaults of Week One of Operation Cast Lead were not followed by a reckless rush of ground forces into Gaza’s dense population centers, where Hamas’s military wing lay in wait.

Hamas’s cynicism is manifest in its use of hospitals and mosques as centers of war, and in the fact that its gunmen are fighting out of uniform – determinedly blurring any distinction between combatant and civilian. Facing a fighting force that knows no ‘rules of war,’ the IDF’s relatively low-level of casualties at this writing would indicate effective preparation and tactics.

It appears that troops are being properly supplied and properly briefed, and sent on missions for which they were properly trained. The paucity of information coming back for wide release from the front – another stark change since 2006 – should not obscure the fierceness of the fighting.

The IDF’s goal is evidently to further damage Hamas’s capacity to fire into Israel without becoming deeply re- enmeshed in Gaza, without markedly higher IDF casualty figures, without having the country’s remarkable right-to- left domestic consensus fracture, and without inadvertently raising Palestinian civilian casualties – the Associated Press reported at least 10 children killed in Gaza on Monday – to levels that would prompt a new order of international pressure.

All of this is central to the gradual reassertion of Israeli deterrent capability – a deterrence that was inherently heightened from the moment, on Saturday, that the IDF reversed the upside-down reality in which the citizens of Sderot and the ‘Gaza envelope’ had been left on the front line while the IDF was immobile.

Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, setting the tone with unprecedented media avoidance, has been quoted as saying that this conflict has to end with Hamas knowing who has prevailed. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday that not all the targets of the operation had been reached. There is talk of days’ more fighting – the heaviest and most dangerous fighting – but not of weeks’.

Israel’s diplomatic goal, meanwhile, is to ensure that the predicted pitfalls and traps are avoided:
That Hamas gains no international legitimacy in the cease-fire arrangements (‘We don’t conclude agreements with terror; we fight it,’ said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday); that a mechanism is put in place to prevent a replication of the previous status quo under which Hamas was able to smuggle in arms from Egypt and smuggle out its military commanders for training in Iran (even though many Israeli security analysts believe there can be no effective substitute for an IDF presence along the Philadelphi corridor); and that Israel retains freedom of action to counter any renewal of rocket fire.

Early in this drastic escalation, Hamas leaders such as Khaled Mashaal and other Islamist spokesmen, including Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah, called for an uprising in Egypt to punish Cairo for its anti-Hamas stance. They urged Gazans to smash through the border into Egypt.

They encouraged an uprising by Israeli Arabs. They demanded a third intifada in the West Bank and a new wave of suicide bombings.

In place of all of this, on Monday Hamas was sending a two-man delegation to Cairo for talks on the terms of a possible cease-fire.

Many of these relative positives can change in an instant. Already, reports are filtering back from the front of troops narrowly escaping kidnap bids, ambushes and booby-trapped buildings.

The fighting on Monday evening was particularly fierce, according to first reports; hours earlier, a Grad rocket had crashed directly into a mercifully empty Ashdod kindergarten.

The line between success and failure in this fraught, complex theater of war is thin, indeed.

© The Jerusalem Post