The story is eerily familiar. Israel and Gaza enjoy a period of relative calm. Terrorists skirmish with Israeli soldiers along the border fence. A trickle of mortars and rockets fall on outlying villages and Kibbutzim. Israel retaliates tit-for-tat. IDF patrols along the Gaza border come under attack. The trickle of missiles falling on Southern Israel becomes a heavy rain. Israel retaliates against rocket launching squads and low-value targets. The barrage of rockets continues. Back-channel mediation efforts fail.
In 2008, this story culminated in Operation Cast Lead. Israel launched massive airstrikes, followed by a ground invasion. The devastation in Gaza was extensive. Over one-thousand Palestinians were killed, mostly combatants. Ten Israeli soldiers fell in battle. The operation ended when Israel declared a ceasefire, withdrawing from Gaza amid intense international condemnation. Over the course of the 22-day operation, the IDF was unable to halt the rocket-fire into Israel.
Operation Pillar of Defense has, so far followed a slightly different pattern. Israel’s response has been swift, but measured. The Israel Defense Forces have performed remarkably. The targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, pinpoint strikes against Hamas missile silos, and the impressive performance of Iron Dome are to their credit. The Shin-Bet is also to be credited with the behind-the-scenes intelligence which enables the IDF’s pinpoint strikes.
Yet, in the broader confrontation with Hamas, military prowess isn’t enough to achieve tangible, long-term gains. The objectives of the current operation in Gaza- strengthening Israeli deterrence, degrading Hamas’s rocket arsenal, inflicting pain on Hamas, and protecting the Israeli home front- are essentially tactical. This operation- even if it expands into a ground war- is unlikely to remove Hamas from power, destroy Hamas’s capacity to re-build its offensive capabilities, or cut Hamas off from its sources of financial, political, and military support abroad. Israel’s military planners are not ignorant of this reality, yet they have not embarked upon a military operation designed to significantly alter the strategic equation.
It is not hard to understand why the Israeli military will not take any action to alter the strategic equation in the Gaza Strip. During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s ground assault stopped short of re-occupying the Gaza Strip and toppling the Hamas regime. Doing so would have entrapped the IDF in the most densely populated urban area in the world. An operation designed to capture and hold the Gaza Strip would almost certainly produce massive IDF casualties, to say nothing of the devastating toll it would take on the Palestinian population. It would also create a vacuum in the Gaza Strip in which forces even more sinister than Hamas might seize power. Reconquering Gaza was a non-starter in 2008, and it’s a non-starter in 2012.
There is little reason to believe that the outcome of Operation Pillar of Defense will be any different from that of Operation Cast Lead. Hamas will eventually re-arm and re-equip. It may adhere to a ceasefire for a while, but it will eventually begin again to challenge Israel’s deterrence. Eventually, the trickle of rockets will start again. Eventually, the residents of southern Israel (and beyond?) will find themselves back in bomb shelters. Eventually, the IDF will have to go back in.
Just because there is no viable military solution to the Gaza question, however, does not mean that Israel should resign itself to the present reality. In a democratic society, a candid public discourse can help generate policy alternatives. With elections on the horizon, now is the time to begin a conversation about Israel’s long-term policy options toward Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general.