Editor’s notes: Until the next time

By David Horovitz January 23, 2009

Israeli deterrence has been significantly bolstered by its assault on Hamas. But that was only half the battle…

It’s a safe bet that there will be no Winograd-style, open savaging of the political and military leadership. But Iran, as The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this week, is conducting an urgent probe into Hamas’s failures in Operation Cast Lead.

Hamas has acknowledged some of them and Israeli security officials have detailed many more: Hamas did not expect Israel to respond to its escalated rocket attacks with a major offensive – not with general elections looming, and the scars of the Second Lebanon War still raw. It certainly didn’t believe the air strikes of week one would be followed by the ground operation of weeks two and three – Israel was deemed to be too wary of international criticism and too cowardly to risk its young soldiers. Hamas anticipated more practical assistance from the Arab world. And it fully intended to kill and maim more Israelis.

It planned to fire more rockets, more deeply, into more Israeli towns and villages and moshavim and kibbutzim, to murder more civilians. It hoped its booby-trapped buildings and tunnels and roadside bombs would fell more Israeli soldiers, and that its familiarity with Gaza’s camps and alleys would yield it greater success in close combat with the IDF.

Unfortunately for Israel, however, Iran and Hamas are not chastened by these failures. The operative conclusions they are drawing are designed solely to pave the way to more effective conflict further down the road. Israel’s challenge now is to minimize the consequence of its own failures in this reluctant resort to force… or risk facilitating that process.

THE IDF fought efficiently and effectively in Gaza, with mercifully fewer losses than had been feared. It fought, as a sovereign state’s army must fight, with the paramount emphasis on protecting its civilians and its soldiers from the enemy – a particularly cynical enemy.

It went to war because Israel’s civilians had been exposed to year after year of unrelenting rocket attack. And when it was eventually ordered by Israel’s political leaders to fight back, it found Hamas thoroughly intertwined with Gaza’s civilians.

With Hamas operating close to schools and in apartment blocks and mosques, and fighting out of uniform – rendering specious the Palestinian ‘civilian’ casualty figures dutifully parroted by uncritical journalists, politicians, activists and protesters the world over – the IDF commanders’ first priority was to protect their troops.

When sniper fire emanated from a residential building, or it was booby-trapped, an IDF commander explained in a briefing last week, the army did not send 10 soldiers inside to risk their lives tackling the danger. This marked a clear departure from 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, where 23 soldiers lost their lives in just such circumstances in the Jenin refugee camp suicide-bomber capital. Instead, the ground troops called in the air force to blow up the building. ‘If a Palestinian family wanted to keep their home,’ the officer said flatly, ‘they shouldn’t have let it be booby-trapped.’

That kind of blunt, soldierly comment ignores a complex Gaza reality in which some Palestinian civilians, at least, may have had no sympathy whatsoever for Hamas, but also no means whatsoever to prevent the extremists taking over their homes and transforming them into military positions.

But the fact is that most Gaza Palestinians demonstrated the most clearly quantified support for Hamas when, in 2006, most of them voted for it in their parliamentary elections. Whereas, in decades past, it was often said that extremists had hijacked the Palestinian cause, in Gaza, over the last few years, the Palestinians gave the hijackers the plane.

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to send in the IDF, and the tactics adopted over the three weeks of fighting, have unquestionably reasserted Israeli deterrence. Hamas, it would appear, will not lightly goad Israel into war again.

But securing the declared goal of the operation – restoring long-term security to the South – required and requires more than deterrence. It necessitates a new reality in which Hamas is incapable of gradually accruing the military capability to do more harm in the future.

Israel could have made greater military progress toward that second goal if the operation had continued, and the IDF had destroyed more weapons factories and killed more key Hamas terror chiefs and arms experts.

It might have been furthered had the IDF, as at least some voices in the military command were urging, retaken the Philadelphi Corridor, and held it until a credible mechanism was in place to prevent the resumption of weapons smuggling across the border.

It would certainly have been achieved if the IDF had escalated the ground offensive and retaken Gaza, preventing Hamas from emerging to govern again.

But those avenues were not pursued. It should be restated here that, whatever its post-war criticisms, the opposition Likud did not demand that they should be. And amid the unilateral cease-fires mutually declared by Israel and then by Hamas, and the anti-smuggling arrangements trumpeted by Israel, the US and various European partners, there would seem to be no decisive impediment to the military revival of Hamas.

Egypt’s professed commitment to really trying, this time, to block the Philadelphi tunnels must be measured against bitter experience, against its refusal to countenance practical international assistance at the border, and against a reality in which Cairo would far prefer any weapons in the Sinai to be smuggled into Gaza for use against Israel than kept in Egypt for use against the Mubarak regime.

And well-intentioned rhetoric aside, it is hard to see how the great Western powers are going to stop those Iranian and Syrian arms supplies before they get to the Sinai. No intelligence effort can intercept each and every Grad needle in the vast haystacks of international trade.

What’s worse is that Hamas, over the last five years of extensive terror training in Iran, has acquired considerable expertise in building and refining its own rockets. While Israel now insists that it will hit back heavily after any future rocket launch, it is far from clear that the IDF will be empowered to hit back, as well, at every instance of Hamas restarting a rocket factory or restocking a weapons bunker.

As the first hours of Operation Cast Lead so definitively testified, the defense establishment knew most everything there was to know about Hamas’s military infrastructure. Hundreds upon hundreds of targets – weapons research labs and bomb factories and rocket stores – that had been painstakingly identified over lengthy periods of intelligence gathering, were smashed.

These were targets that had been left untouched during the previous six-month ‘truce.’ The kinds of targets, one fears, that will not be touched again so long as the current ‘cease-fire’ holds. The kinds of targets that, if indeed left untouched, will form the basis of a more dangerous Hamas military threat. And this increasingly robust military capacity will be nurtured by Hamas military leaders who, again as in the previous truce, one fears will be free to operate under the cease-fire in the confidence that they are off limits to the IDF.

NUMEROUS FACTORS combined, ultimately, to ensure that the ‘Phase Three’ escalated ground offensive was not approved. There was profound concern in the IDF about greater loss of Israeli and Palestinian life in the heart of Gaza’s densest population centers. There was a desire to avoid reconquering the Strip altogether – with no certainty about how or when Israel might then extricate itself – and consequently there was less enthusiasm for a ground operation short of reconquest that might see only relatively marginal tactical gains at high cost.

Then there was the not inconsequential matter of international pressure, escalating as the US presidential transition neared. The American-facilitated United Nations Security Council demand for a cease-fire placed Israel on the defensive less than two weeks into the operation – creating a sense that here was a case of an outlaw Israel defying the world, with even its one strategic ally, the United States, abandoning it.

In part, that vote was a function of Western leaders buckling under the pressure of protests on their own streets. And the climate of hostility to Israel for its resort to force, although spearheaded by familiar radical and Muslim activists in many countries, was, in turn, exacerbated by dismal coverage of the conflict in much of the international media.

The ease with which so many central news outlets allowed themselves to be manipulated was disheartening. Gaza was widely reported on numerous TV stations as being subject to an Israeli ‘media ban’ – risibly so, when those very reports were carried over footage broadcast from Gaza.

Those Palestinian health officials’ death toll figures were almost universally cited, including by the Israeli media, even though it was known that Hamas was fighting out of uniform and that its hundreds of combatant dead were being falsely counted as civilians.

Little coverage was devoted to Hamas’s vicious simultaneous war on Fatah: an estimated 100 Fatah members killed or wounded – eyes gouged out, shot in the legs. This was a settling of scores that underlined the Islamists’ disregard for fellow Palestinians’ lives, and hence their enthusiasm for conducting warfare in and around Gazans’ own homes, but it was evidently too confusing or inconvenient to merit adequate reporting.

In contrast to 2006, Israel did have a more effective public diplomacy presence. But precisely as in 2006, it had failed to highlight the looming confrontation in the months before Operation Cast Lead, failed to share credible intelligence on the Hamas build-up with influential journalists, failed to call world leaders’ attention to the threat in the UN and other forums.

Come the fateful hour at the Security Council, with Europe’s heavyweight foreign ministers and outgoing US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice locked in debate, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was at home. Her personal appointee, the entirely well-intentioned and entirely inexperienced Gabriela Shalev, proved incapable even of persuading Israel’s allies of the justice of its cause. Shalev was left, rather pathetically, to bemoan in a radio interview that the French had played a double game, and that she had been tricked over voting intentions. Quelle surprise!

IT WAS always clear that Hamas would declare victory in survival. It was always clear that the Hamas ideology of destroying Israel could not be crushed militarily.

But any hope among Israel’s leaders that Hamas would be forced into a humiliating cease-fire disappeared when Phase Three was canceled. And Livni’s assertion that this will be the first in a series of operations gradually dislodging Hamas from power appears tenuous at best.

Al-Jazeera led the region’s Arabic-television stations in covering the operation not as Israel’s assault on Hamas, but as an assault on Gaza, and that is the prevailing narrative inside the Strip, in the Arab world and far beyond. Gazans were Israel’s victims. Hamas is their defender. And Mahmoud Abbas, widely regarded as complicit with Israel in the assault, is more derided than ever.

Khaled Mashaal and his colleagues had Al-Jazeera at their disposal to urge resistance against Israel and curse the man routinely described by Hamas, now that his term has formally ended, as the ‘former president of the PA.’ Using that TV platform, Hamas helped foster demonstrations on the streets of Beirut, Cairo, San’a and Khartoum that not only castigated Israel and its American big brother, but also Abbas’s PA.

It was anticipated by some in Israel that Gazans would emerge into the ruins, look across at the West Bank, see the economy there improving, unemployment falling and the US overseeing the training of Palestinian security forces, and conclude that Hamas was not, after all, the leadership they needed.

Instead, Gazans remain locked in Hamas’s grip, and Abbas has so lost credibility in the West Bank that the PA had to round up a group of its own civil servants to populate a pro-Abbas rally in Ramallah this week.
In the dominant West Bank perception, Israel went to war against the Palestinians, and Abu Mazen, the hapless CIA stooge, and all his elderly Abu friends, stood quietly by. Criticism to this effect is being levelled at Abbas even from within his Fatah hierarchy, from senior officials who have watched their own colleagues being killed and maimed by Hamas.

THE IRANIAN probe into Hamas’s failures, then, will certainly conclude that it erred in believing Israel would again hold its fire, misjudged the nature of the Israeli response, and failed to prepare with sufficient military skill and strength to inflict heavier Israeli casualties.

But the post-war investigation will also take heed of the benefits reaped by drawing Israel into conflict in the midst of a dispensable Palestinian civilian population. It will contentedly register the superficiality of so much of the media coverage, and rejoice anew in the power of TV footage shorn of context to manipulate opinion-shapers the world over.

And its concluding recommendation will not be: Let’s put aside the weapons that have caused so much bloodshed on both sides of the Gaza border, recognize the sovereign rights of the state next door and set about attaining for our people the improved education, health, opportunity and freedom that a sympathetic world is so anxious to help provide.

It will be, rather: Let’s get the tunnels working full-speed again, our terror chiefs training in Iran and Lebanon and Syria, and our domestic weapons production back on track.

Let’s encourage our own media and every gullible reporter, activist and politician we can find to misrepresent our conflict with Israel as a David-and-Goliath struggle for liberation and independence.

And let’s make sure that the next battle comes at a time of our choice – when we have gained far greater military potency by exploiting every weakness in the porous Israeli and international defenses – so that we win.

© The Jerusalem Post