A wary and unwilling Israeli government was finally forced into action last week in Gaza, after Ron Yichye, a 47-year-old father of four was killed by a Kassam that hit him at Sapir College in Sderot and long-range katyushas tore into residential neighborhoods of Ashkelon for the first time. A military official quoted by AP said that the harsh Israeli reaction was intended as a clear signal to Hamas that hitting Ashkelon will not be tolerated, as if the torment inflicted by kassams on Sderot over the past two years was somehow tolerable. The difference is that 250,000 Israelis – and not just 25,000 poor development town residents – are now within range of Palestinian missiles, and Ashdod, Israel's second largest port, is coming ever closer to joining the club.
The operation was not the long-delayed and much threatened major ground operation that has long been viewed as inevitable by most Israeli strategists, but it was far bigger than any operation in Gaza undertaken by the IDF since the withdrawal from Gaza. According to Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF succeeded in killing 90 Palestinian fighters, including at least one "high-quality" – i.e., Iranian-trained – terror squad. But as was the case in the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, the main fighting appears to have died down in anticipation of Secretary of State Rice's visit to Israel at the end of the week, with the Palestinian's capacity to rain kassams and katyshas on Israel still intact.
The government's refusal to initiate a major ground operation in Gaza owes to much more than its characteristic lack of resolve and fear of destroying the illusion of an ongoing peace process. A number of quandaries face the government to which no answer has yet been found, whether from a political or strategic point of view. The first reason for hesitancy is that such a ground action would be very costly in terms of soldiers' lives. Already a year ago, Amir Oren in Haaretz placed the estimated number of Israelis fatalities from a thorough ground action at 50 to 80, with wounded of eight to nine times that number.
In recent years, Assaf Sagiv points out in the current Azure, the Israeli public has become enormously sensitive to military casualties – a fact reflected in series of wildly one-sided prisoner exchanges, in which hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinian terrorists, have been exchanged for a single captured soldier and sometimes for only a coffin. Indeed the normal order in which it is viewed as the duty of the military to protect civilians has been to a large extent inverted so that civilians remain under fire to avoid endangering troops, as happened for nearly a month during the Second Lebanon War: The government hesitated about committing ground troops for nearly that entire period, even after hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced from their homes. Oren predicted last year that the casualties entailed in a major ground action would undermine national support for the campaign even if the immediate provocation was a horrendous terrorist attack.
In short, Israel today is a long way from the mindset that led Great Britain to send an entire squadron of the Royal Navy to the Aegean Sea and blockade the Greek port of Piraeus for two months in response to the looting of the home of a single British subject, a Jewish trader by the name of David Pacifico, by an anti-Semitic Greek mob. Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister, declared, ". . . a British subject in whatever land he may be shall feel confident that hte watchful eye and strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong."
Against the tragic cost in lives of a ground operation now, of course, is the near certainty that postponement can only increase the ultimate price. Hamas is not remaining static. With every passing day, its military capacities increase, as terrorist trained abroad infiltrate the Strip and new weapons are added to its arsenal. At least one of the two Israeli soldiers killed in fighting on Shabbos was hit by the same time of Iranian anti-tank missile that proved so effective in Lebanon.
The even bigger issue is that there is no reason to believe that a successful ground operation, which succeeded in ferreting out the huge stores of weaponry that have flooded the Gazza Strip since the 2005 withdrawal and in destroying much of the terrorist infrastructure, would be a one-time affair. Kassams, at least, are cheaply and easily manufactured, and the supply of would be terrorists in Gaza is apparently limitless.
For that reason most scenarios of a major Gaza action assume that Israel would seize control of the Philadelphi Corridor dividing Gaza from Egyptian Sinai in order to prevent new armaments flowing in. Shabak head Yuval Diskin told the Knesset that in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal the quantity of weapons smuggled into Gaza increased by 300%.
What is less clear is precisely how Israel would gain control of the Philadelphi Corridor without risking a military confrontation with Egypt. Egypt is now responsible for controlling the Philadelphi Corridor, and it is hard to imagine under what circumstances the Egyptians would turn over that responsibility to Israel. Egypt is enormously sensitive about its image in the Arab world, and would surely be accused of having aided and abetted Israel in suppressing Hamas-controlled Gaza. Doing so would also provide a good recruiting video for the Moslem Brotherhood, the single greatest internal threat to the Mubarak regime.
Another major downside, as far as Israel is concerned, is that control over the Philadelphi Corridor would once again make Israel responsible for Gaza's welfare, and thus negate one of hte perceived benefits of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. In any event, if Israel does not wish to be forced into a series of costly ground operations, it would probably have to reoccupy at least the northern part of the Gaza Strip, from which almost all the Palestinian missiles are fired today. (For that reason, former national security advisor Uzi Dayan always said that Israel should retain the four northern Gaza settlements in 2005.)
If we have learned one lesson in recent years it is that there is no substitute for an IDF ground presence in thwarting terrorism and missile fire. Kassam fire alone has increased, according to Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the U.N., from about 50 per month prior to the Gaza withdrawal to as many as fifty per day by early 2008. In the wake of Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, the IDF reasserted security control of the Judea and Samaria, and since then terrorist activity from the West Bank has plummeted. (In the month proceeding Operation Defensive Shield, nearly 140 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks – in proportional terms the equivalent of more than 50,000 Americans.)
In short, Israel is inexorably being led right back to the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. If that takes place, the only "achievement" of the 2005 withdrawal will turn out to have been the destruction of the Gaza settlements and the lives of the 8,000 Jews who built them and made their lives there. For the incumbent Kadima Party, which pretty much came into existence, around the Gaza withdrawal, that would be a fatal admission, and it is not surprising that the government is doing everything it can to avoid making clear the bitter fruits of the Gaza withdrawal.
And finally, as the international response to Israel's efforts to defend itself from Palestinian missile fire shows, the greatest achievement claimed for the Gaza withdrawal – Israel's improved international standing and new freedom of action in responding to terrorism from Gaza – has proven to be a phantasm. We shall consider that reaction next week.
This article appeared in Yated Ne'eman March 4 2008