Israel Changes Strategy Against Gaza Militants

The operation marks a shift to lower Israel’s political costs. Has it played into Hamas’ hand?

As Operation Protective Edge enters its fourth day, it is unclear when and how it will come to an end. Yet some clear observations can already be made as to how the current military operation measures up to similar efforts in the past, as well as to how it might affect relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The operation (originally termed in Hebrew “solid rock wall”) began Monday night in response to Hamas firing rockets at Israel’s southern cities the previous weekend. While this was hardly unique — rockets have been fired from Gaza on a fairly regular basis for more than two years — it came in an extremely tense situation. It was preceded by the highly publicized search and rescue operation of three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped in the vicinity of Hebron by Hamas operatives. After they were found dead, a Palestinian boy was murdered. Believed to be a revenge killing, this sparked mass riots in Israel and the Palestinian territories and encouraged Hamas to adopt a more aggressive stand.

As of Thursday night, Hamas has launched more than four hundred rockets at Israel, including for the first time dozens of long range rockets aimed at its two biggest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Several even hit the northern city of Haifa. Most fell in open areas while the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted eighty rockets.

Israel responded by striking at hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip, destroying more than five hundred rocket launchers and killing some eighty members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, according to the Israeli army.

At first look, Protective Edge may seem yet another Israeli bombardment campaign, the last in a long line of similar counterterrorism operations Israel has conducted against Gaza and which were designed to achieve many of the same objectives: restoring the balance of deterrence, punishing Hamas and preventing its ability to rearm itself in the near future. Indeed, like operations before it, Protective Edge has been limited to airstrikes against selected targets in Gaza. Yet a marked shift in the Israeli operational logic is noticeable in the current campaign.

Despite the large — and continuing — Israeli Air Force attacks, collateral damage, both in terms of victims as well as destruction of property, has been relatively low, especially when compared to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. As a result, Israel has managed to avoid being too heavily criticized for its operations abroad.

This marks a shift from previous years. In 2006, for example, during the Second Lebanon War, the declared operational concept was “disproportionate response,” meaning that when attacked, Israel would not only strike back but act in order to exact a disproportionate amount of destruction against military and semimilitary infrastructure in a way that would take Hezbollah years to rehabilitate.

Similarly, in Operation Cast Lead, surgical airstrikes were followed with a ground invasion two days later, intentionally designed to eliminate as many Hamas operatives as possible by forcing them out of their hiding — a tactic that necessarily increased the number of civilian casualties. More than 4,000 buildings were destroyed, leaving tens of thousands more Palestinians homeless. The only consideration that apparently prevented further destruction to the enclave’s infrastructure was Israel’s concern for the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit who was held in an unknown location within Gaza at the time.

What explains the shift in strategy to a more “surgical,” aerial approach? Most importantly, it reflects Israel’s inherent reluctance to pursue a comprehensive military solution in its conflicts with the Palestinians. In contrast to Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel did not initiate the current round of hostilities and is responding to what seems an Hamas attempt to break out of its political and economic isolation and score some points with ordinary Palestinians, distracting them from its failure to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip. It is for this reason that Hamas’ main demand is the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, on which it depends for tax revenues and the import of basic goods.

Israel’s objective is to bring a stop to the rocket attacks and “rewind,” as one cabinet minister put it, the situation to where it was two weeks ago — with as little effort as possible.

Seen from this perspective, Israel is not interested in toppling Hamas, fearful of the anarchy that will likely ensue in Gaza if its central authority collapses. At the same time, Israel cannot allow itself to signal anything but its utmost resolve to act against the Islamist movement. This explains why Israeli officials, when asked about the possibility of launching a ground invasion that could bring Hamas to its knees, claim that the option has not been ruled out — even as the majority of cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, seem to object to the possibility.

While nobody expects Hamas to hold out long in the face of a determined Israeli incursion, the longer the fighting lasts, the more hope Hamas has of improving its dire strategic position. While Israel wants to calm things down as soon as possible, Hamas’ only recourse is to draw Israel further in.

Presently, no significant international pressure is exercised on either party to reach a deal. Even Egypt has little ability or will to fill its traditional role of mediator and pressure Hamas into a ceasefire. There are no diplomatic efforts to reach some sort of agreement which means an end to the current round of fighting does not appear in sight.

The longer the crisis continues, the possibility of a military mishap that will put Israel under increased international condemnation and pressures increases. Similarly, the better chances Hamas has of scoring a significant achievement that will force Israel to escalate.

And of course, if Israel does decide to go for a ground operation, the situation will be dramatically transformed and all former considerations will have to be reassessed.