Brave in the air, scared in their boots

With the tenuous ceasefire coming into effect on the 21st of November, the IDF, Israeli public, Hamas and the Palestinian public will ask questions and draw conclusions about the latest round of violence. The IDF rushed to declare a robust victory, claiming that it had restored deterrence against Hamas rocket fire. But the victory was a hollow one, as the IDF took a minimalist approach to the escalation and thus failed to recreate its deterrence against Hamas.

An operation that started with all the hallmarks of military daring, signaling the state’s desire to reset its red lines and delineate its point of no return, slowly turned into a monotonous air campaign that did little to provide real protection for residents of the South.

Operation Pillar of Defense commenced with the targeted killing of terrorist mastermind and Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, and the destruction of nearly the entire inventory of Hamas’s long-range Fajr missiles. Israeli intelligence had helped pinpoint vital caches of advanced weapons and key terrorist personal, which were subsequently eliminated by the IAF.

By the first day of the operation, Hamas was on the back foot, its top military leader dead, scores of fighters dead or injured, and its key weapon ‒ the Fajr ‒ all but totally destroyed. It was in complete disarray, plagued by confusion and fear instilled by the veracity and accuracy of the Israeli assault. This was the time for Israel to increase the pressure and break the back of Hamas. Special Forces, infantry, and armored units should have been sweeping the terrorist enclave in order to destroy its terrorist infrastructure, and to strike fear into an already disoriented enemy.

Then Israel then gave up its initiative.

Forgoing its strategic advantage, the IDF proceeded with a ponderous air campaign. While its 70,000 troops called for reserve duty lounged about on the Gaza border awaiting commands and dodging Qassam rockets, Israel’s air force flew listlessly, bombing low-level target after low-level target. And when it had successfully struck all the targets on its list, the IAF simply started bombing the same targets again.

In analyzing the IDF’s performance, it is necessary to state the declared aim of the operation as expressed by the government. The IDF launched this operation in order to bring an end to the constant rocket and mortar fire upon the country’s million southern residents. These civilians had been living under habitual, ever-increasing attacks from the Hamas terrorist enclave. Hamas is reported to have had over 10,000 rockets and missiles of varying ranges and types.

To be clear: The IDF is incapable of achieving this goal through air strike and artillery fire alone. Though the IAF is a truly formidable force, it is tempered by the mandated use of precision munitions and is incapable of creating the kind of deterrence necessary to bring quiet to the south. The only way to dissuade any future attacks against Israel’s civilian attacks is by combining a robust aerial campaign with a ground invasion, something that Israel failed to do.

In modern warfare, especially asymmetrical warfare, victory is not conditioned upon territorial control or total capitulation. Rather victory is achieved by creating a reality whereby the fear of a swift and overwhelming response tempers belligerents from acting aggressively. Furthermore, by acting decisively, overwhelmingly, and with great speed, militaries are able to dominate the battle space and create debilitating fear and confusion, which will ultimately result in substantially increased deterrence.

There would undoubtedly have been Israeli casualties, and it would not be an easy incursion, but the prime minister had the political capital and public support, after months of attacks on Southern Israel, to undertake such a daring operation.

A land incursion run concurrently with the initial air attacks would have totally surprised the Hamas leadership, and this would have had two positive effects. Firstly, it would not have been able to prepare any countermeasure or tactics against an Israeli ground invasion, as it was already under extreme pressure and confusion following the initial air assault. Secondly, it would have created a new red line in Israel’s deterrence against future attacks. If the state showed a willingness to use overwhelming force involving the army in addition to air power in response to even the slightest provocation, Hamas would be extremely wary of launching or allowing any future attacks against Israel.

Instead Israel stalled on introducing ground troops, and waited two days before calling up its reserves. These soldiers sat on the border with Gaza, while Hamas reorganized and prepared its defenses so as to make any potential ground incursion even more painful for Israel. The initiative was lost, and in the end the status quo between Israel and Hamas stayed pretty much the same.

Though the Iron Dome system has given Israeli officials space and time to make strategic decisions, it has also lessened their urgency in making bold decisions. Instead of launching the necessary ground invasion, the government opted for a much more moderate stratagem, with lower risks and less discernable change in Israel’s deterrence.

Just 30 minutes after the declared ceasefire came into effect, the Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Mashaal stated, “The Israelis capitulated to the terms dictated by the resistance. Eight days of fighting forced them to surrender… The enemy’s leaders failed in their adventure.” Although this is obviously blatant exaggeration and the facts show that Israel did indeed deliver a severe blow to the leadership and long range abilities of Hamas, this bravado might be born out of a sense that Hamas never truly felt existentially threatened during Pillar of Defense.

Only by undertaking a combined land and air operation could Hamas have been persuaded to refrain from future aggression. Politicians, once again, did not let the IDF win, and residents of the South will end up paying the price.


About the Author
Neil Margolius has an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies and Counter Terrorism from IDC Herzliya, an MA in European studies from Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf. He is currently studying for MA in Counter Terrorism at IDC. Neil was an NCO in the IDF's Strategic Division.