Despite his hawkish reputation as “Mr. Security”, Bibi’s premierships have been overall quiet and peaceful, and he has consistently demonstrated an uncanny restraint and reserve in making military and political decisions. A mixture of a cost-benefit analysis and special-forces approach to military action – a result of his training in Sayeret Matkal – is obvious in his decision-making and informs his characteristic caution and reserve.
However, Netanyahu has cast his traditional caution to the wind by setting far-reaching goals for Operation Protective Edge, envisioning it as an extended military operation. Israel’s stated goals are to “dismantle Hamas’ rocket infrastructure,” destroying Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure and “restoring calm for a long period of time and dealing a significant blow to Hamas and other terrorist organizations.” Intentionally or not, Protective Edge has become Bibi’s first war.
Netanyahu realizes that the threat posed by Hamas has evolved: it is bolder, better armed and better trained than in past engagements. Khaled Meshaal recently boasted about this disturbing improvement in “the Resistance’s” tactics and its increased daring. In the past, Hamas reacted to the IDF and could not initiate. Their goal used to be mere survival. However, Hamas has recently shown an unprecedented boldness of action by trying to carry the war into Israel – launching drones into Israel, and attempting infiltrations via tunnels and sea-borne landings. The only way to roll back its progress is a a far-reaching, sustained military operation aimed at dismantling Hamas. Bibi fully realizes this.
Hamas fighting an offensive war is an even more frightening prospect given the reach and magnitude of its tunnel infrastructure leading into Israel. Security sources reported that they were to be used for a massive attack against Israeli civilians on Rosh HaShana and as it stands, these tunnels have been used effectively to strike against targets within Israel. With all of the tunnels that the IDF has so far discovered and destroyed, Hamas has boasted that Israel has only reached “a fraction.” They have promised to rebuild after the IDF’s withdrawal, and past experience shows that they should be taken seriously.
Admittedly, all of Hamas’ daring attempts have ended in failure thus far, mainly due to the IDF’s vigilance. Nonetheless, these attempts show a remarkable improvement in Hamas’ daring and military skills compared to its past performances. Hamas isn’t simply rebounding to its former strength. It is actively improving its tactics, weapons and methods, and, left to its down devices, it will continue to do so. As it stands, Hamas is taking a heavy toll on the IDF. Dismantling Hamas in the future will exact a much heavier price, as they will continue to strengthen themselves militarily for the inevitable next round of fighting.
Hamas also stumbled into its biggest victory to date by inadvertently shutting down international air-traffic into Ben-Gurion Airport. While Hamas did not expect such a result from its rocket attacks, Meshaal was quick to capitalize on this and promised, “When you lay siege to our airspace, we lay siege to your airspace.” The ever-improving range and accuracy of Hamas’ rocket arsenal (Hamas is in talks to buy North Korean missiles) and the limited threat it took for the United States and European Union to suspend flights to Israel make Meshaal’s threat more ominous. Hamas is easily capable of replicating the conditions which led to the suspension of flights to Israel, bringing tourism to a virtual halt and disastrously affecting business travel and investment. Hamas now realizes that its rockets can internationally isolate and economically strangle Israel by simply being fired in the general direction of Ben Gurion Airport, so it can be expected to continue doing so.
Bibi has recognized that a short operation is insufficient to eliminate the threat from Hamas, saying that Protective Edge will not end without, at least, “neutralizing Hamas’ tunnels.” He echoed a previous statement by Defense Minister Ya’alon that Protective Edge would not end in a few days. Nor should it. Israel’s security cabinet rightly rejected a 7-day cease-fire proposal by Secretary of State Kerry, and Israelis are not interested in seeking out a permanent cease-fire under the current conditions.
Neither is Hamas. Meshaal stated that even talks leading to a ceasefire would have to be preceded by Israel lifting its siege off of Gaza and opening the crossings to movement of people and goods. However, a ceasefire under conditions remotely favorable to Hamas would be disastrous for Israel. In addition to granting Hamas a resounding psychological victory, the open-movement would flood Gaza with terrorist elements from across the Arab and Islamic world and beyond, including Hezbollah and the IRGC, increasing the threat to Israel’s security tenfold.
Bibi knows he must sustain an extended military campaign until Protective Edge’s far-reaching, but necessary, goals have been accomplished and Hamas is dismantled. Despite simultaneously calling for a ceasefire, the international community agrees. The EU uncharacteristically issued a harsh condemnation of Hamas, calling on it and other organizations to disarm, as did President Obama and Secretary Kerry, and even many Arab States are hoping for Hamas’ demise. Bibi must capitalize on this rare international support as it will not present itself again, and the threat from Hamas will continue to grow.
Once upon a time, rockets and attacks from Gaza were only a “mere nuisance” and not an existential threat. That calculus no longer holds. Hamas nullified the geographical isolation which once made Gaza relatively harmless to Israel’s existence, and now have the same ability to bring daily life in Israel to a halt from Gaza as they would from Judea-Samaria. This leaves no option but Hamas’ total dismantlement. We have been here before, during 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. Prime Minister Olmert had a much weaker Hamas on the run and a golden opportunity to eliminate their threat then and there, sparing both Israelis and Palestinians two consecutive rounds of bloody fighting. But he backed down under international pressure and a fear of the power vacuum that would be created by Hamas’ removal. But this time the international community is tilting towards Israel, and IDF control of the Philadelphi corridor would eliminate the possibility of Al-Qaeda or other groups entering Gaza after dismantling Hamas. Bibi must not repeat Olmert’s mistake. If he does, Hamas will simply rebuild its tunnels, replenish its arsenal with more accurate missiles, and improve its combat skills. Hamas has simply become too dangerous to be allowed to exist anymore. “Mowing the lawn” no longer works. The proverbial grass has to be uprooted this time, otherwise we will be here again in another two years, facing an even more powerful Hamas.