Operation Protective Edge: Is Israel walking into a trap?

When ordering the troops into Lebanon in 1982, Israeli Prime Minister Begin promised a temporary manoeuvre, then gave Israel 18 years of occupation.

Three years after the initial invasion, the high price paid by the IDF and Lebanon’s civilians without a categorical victor ensured that total withdrawal without victory was impossible, whilst total occupation of Lebanon was unfeasible.

Resultantly, the IDF established a 15-Kilometre ‘security zone’ in south Lebanon, seeking to protect Israeli civilians from rocket fire.

Israel received a slow bleed of weekly military casualties in the security zone, shattering Israeli societal resolve and stunting strategic ingenuity.

Despite the difference in size between Gaza and Lebanon, the parallels are obvious today.

Like Begin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process is indubitably conservative. However, under Netanyahu’s leadership Israel’s warfare doctrine has undergone a revolutionary change.

In the past few years, the Israel Defence Forces’ strategy has shifted significantly; from the long-established doctrine of short, sharp unleashing of maximum force to bludgeon a stunned enemy into a favourable cease-fire, to an incremental, diplomatically-astute strategy of escalation in stages.

Gone are the strategic parameters of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2006, where police stations and graduating cadets were declared legitimate targets in the first foray of pummelling air strikes.

In contrast, ‘Operation Protective Edge’ began with precise air strikes against carefully selected targets, the same modus operandi as ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, another of Netanyahu’s reluctant skirmishes.

This ‘new’ policy A) Provides ‘damage control’ regarding international pressure, by portraying Israel as the more restrained actor; and B) Ensures that ‘time outs’ can be regularly called by either side, before hostilities are ramped up a notch. This provides each actor with a chance to call time on the fighting.

At first, Israel had the world on its side. However, once the Israeli Air Force ran out of obvious targets and began attacking houses of Hamas members, or other targets of dubious strategic value, increased civilian casualties – and the international outrage that follows – were inevitable.

Thus, in the latest round of fighting, following the exhaustion of legitimate targets that could be pummelled from the air, Israel’s government accepted a ceasefire resolution. Once it was clear that Hamas would not take the opportunity to call a ‘time out’, Israel sought to capitalise on any remaining international legitimacy and ordered IDF infantry units to enter parts – but not all – of the Gaza Strip.

As of the time of writing, the IDF still refrains from ‘going all the way’, operating within a ‘buffer zone’ of 3 Kilometres from the Gaza-Israel border.

However, due to Israel’s restrained policy of gradual escalation, decision-makers are in danger of walking into a fatal trap, which they are setting for themselves.

Israeli strategists are faced with two contradictory, but equally legitimate choices: go big, or go home. But the longer Israel fails to do either means that the viability of each option fades fast.

Once Israeli soldiers enter Gaza, increased Palestinian and Israeli deaths are certain. This leads to an escalation of two opposing variables affecting decision-making: increased international pressure to stop fighting; and Israeli public pressure to strike a ‘killer blow’ against Hamas, due to the snowballing economic and societal costs, alongside more and more Israeli fatalities.

Every dead Israeli soldier and every bombed school, mosque or UN facility is an albatross around the neck of Israel’s military and political leaders. Decision-making risks becoming less strategic and more emotionally driven and increasingly schizophrenic, the product of two diametrically opposed variables: internal and external public opinion.

Anyone who proclaims they have a miracle solution is either deluded or deluding, but several ‘ground rules’ must be adhered to.

  1. Decide, and decide fast: every day that goes by makes unilateral escalation or de-escalation less viable.
  2. Whatever you do, don’t settle for paralysis and the status quo.

The worst potential outcome is where Israel squanders the opportunity to either go big, or go home on her own terms, and ends up recreating the costly and ineffective policies of Lebanon: seeking to create a gap between Israel’s civilians and enemy combatants, by stationing a semi-permanent force within the 3 Kilometre ‘buffer zone’.

More Israelis have died in combat during Operation Protective Edge than inefficient Hamas rockets could ever kill. The same was true of the hundreds of regular military deaths in Israel’s security zone in Lebanon, vis-à-vis the small trickle of civilian casualties prior to the invasion.

There is no clear-cut military solution to a political and territorial dispute, but prolonging the buffer zone is bad for Israel’s ability to ‘defeat’ Hamas, corrosive for Israel’s international legitimacy, and a tragedy for the families of the dead on all sides, and therefore must be avoided at all costs.

In short: Israel has limited time to hit and hurt Hamas hard – either diplomatically (by withdrawal and cease-fire) or militarily (by entering Gaza). Every day that goes by means more dead Palestinian children and young Israeli soldiers, and less legitimacy to radically change the status quo in Israel’s favour. Netanyahu and his associates will do well to remember that either option is infinitely preferable to another security zone quagmire.


About the Author
Rob Pinfold is a PhD Candidate in War Studies at King's College, London, studying the topic of Israeli withdrawal from territory. He has been living in Jerusalem for two years, where he worked as an Israel Research Fellow, and currently works as a Research and Teaching Assistant at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.