What dangers lurk in Gaza’s sands

The renewal of hostilities after Hamas abrogated yet another cease-fire this weekend proves that Gaza remains an intensely dangerous place for Israel. Exactly what dangers lurk in Gaza’s sands, however, remains obscure, its true nature only now rising to the surface.

Operation Protective Edge has morphed from its stated goal of ending the incessant rocket fire by Hamas and other armed groups, to uncovering and destroying terror tunnels that those groups used or would use to infiltrate Israel, and back again. The diplomatic mission, too, has turned from the modest “restoring quiet” to the too-ambitious installation of Mahmoud Abbas in power over the Gaza Strip and back again, from seeking American intervention to shunning it and back again, etc. Israel’s government may be certain about whom it is fighting in Gaza, but its zig-zagging over the course of this operation shows that it is conflicted about exactly why and how to fight.

The initial impetus for airstrikes on Gaza in early July was, of course, a flurry of rocket fire on Israeli cities that has still not abated. The undisputed hero of Operation Protective Edge thus far has been the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which has essentially nullified the threat of rocket fire from Gaza. Both the terrorists’ rockets and the Israelis’ technological marvel of a defense have been discussed at length, but one element has been overlooked.

According to the IDF’s own count, as recorded in a recent post on its official blog, Iron Dome has shot down only one-sixth of the rockets fired at Israel by terrorists in Gaza. This would be a colossal failure, if not for the fact that the nearly 3,000 rockets that Iron Dome ignored landed out of the reach of heavily populated areas – causing much anxiety and some damage, to be sure, but just one death. (Two civilians and five soldiers have been killed by short-range mortar shells that Iron Dome was not designed to defend.) Several hundred actually landed inside Gaza.

It is impolitic to say this, because Israel has traded on the inherent unfairness of its being assaulted, but the truth is that Hamas’ rocket attacks are extraordinarily impotent and wasteful; for an organization determined to wipe the Zionist state off the map, they are an unmitigated failure. What’s more, the same can be said for the terror tunnels which became, for a few weeks, the new military focus and diplomatic thrust of Operation Protective Edge.

The deadly threat of terrorists digging under the security fence along Israel’s border with Gaza and crawling out who-knows-where is not new. The 2006 attack in which Gilad Schalit was kidnapped, and other members of his unit were killed, was carried out by gunmen who had infiltrated into Israeli territory via underground tunnels. The specter of such an attack concerned Israeli security officials long before that, even while smugglers dug under Israeli soldiers patrolling the Egypt-Gaza border when Israel still controlled the strip.

What grabs the psyche about these tunnels is not only the deviousness that drives their creators, but the unholy discipline and tremendous resources required to complete them. Indeed, the same IDF blog estimates that the dozens of tunnels its troops uncovered and destroyed during this operation required more than $90 million and several years to build. And yet, their offensive value to Hamas is minimal. Even the wild-eyed horror of the so-called “mega attack” on southern communities that was planned for these tunnels was an impractical fantasy that – should it, God forbid, have been successful – would have been a one-time deal for Hamas. The plan revealed the group’s desperation more than its innovation.

In other words, murdering Israelis has become a nearly impossible proposition for Hamas. What they and their fellow terrorists were once able to pull off with just hundreds of dollars’ worth of explosives and a few days to plan, they can no longer accomplish with tens of millions of dollars in materials and years of effort. (Making matters worse for Hamas is that some 160 Palestinian children died while digging tunnels for the group.)

So much of the coverage of this conflict has centered on perfunctory questions, such as what Hamas demands in exchange for a cease-fire. A much more important question is why Hamas has chosen its current tactics. On that, the inescapable conclusion from Hamas’ resort to the slow, expensive and fruitless acts of smuggling rockets and digging in the dirt is that the group has run out of options. First, sweeping arrests and targeted assassinations of their leaders destabilized the group. Then, the disengagement created a physical distance from Israelis that robbed Hamas of easy opportunities to kill and maim. Now, Israel’s rocket-swatting and tunnel-busting capabilities have stymied the group’s best hopes of scoring any kind of victory.

None of this means that Israel can, or should, react to such actions with equanimity. Israel cannot afford to respond to the rocket fire with anything other than the kind of punishing blows that it has delivered during Operation Protective Edge. But neither can it afford to leave it at that, as if this current course will somehow secure a truce. Similar blows delivered in the past failed to put an end to the rocket fire, and this operation will surely fail, as well. It is simply not enough.

Three times now – in Operation Cast Lead, in Operation Pillar of Defense, and in Operation Protective Edge – Israel has invaded Gaza with the stated goal of “changing the reality” with Hamas. Three times, Israel has stopped short of doing so. What Israel has demonstrated each time is that it has no stomach to eradicate Hamas; that it accepts the status quo that it tells the rest of the world is unacceptable.

Here lies perhaps the greatest threat to Israel in any conflict with Hamas or any other terrorist group: In promoting the justice of its cause, and the purity of its arms, Israel has set such stifling limits on its own power that it may find it impossible to fight effectively. The extraordinary efforts that Israel makes to limit collateral damage are, at once, both imperative and unsustainable. How can Israel deter a terrorist group from using its own people as human shields, from burrowing underground so that its homes will be smashed and its civilians sacrificed, when Israel itself tells the world that it will not do so? How can Israel fight a war without casualties?

At home, as well, Israel’s leaders are loath to carry out any operation that results in more than a few dozen soldiers’ deaths, worrying about public condemnation of a battle that proves too bloody. This concern for soldiers’ welfare was once one of Israel’s greatest strengths, but recent governments have turned it into one of the country’s greatest weaknesses. Whereas once Israel was spurred by its small stature and perilous fate to fight offensively and creatively, dealing decisive blows to not only temporarily blunt an enemy but to impair that enemy’s ability to fight again, in recent years it has become more defensive, more entrenched, more willing to fight to a draw. Ironically, these governments have backtracked even as the public they feared demanded the opposite, saying explicitly: “We are willing to pay a heavy price, if it will end this conflict once and for all.”

And so, the absurdity of Gaza continues. Hamas fires rockets and digs tunnels because it is weak, and cannot come to grips with its weakness. Israel refrains from defeating Hamas because it is strong, and cannot come to grips with its strength. Hamas’s leaders huddle in their tunnels, waiting for an invasion that never comes. Israel’s leaders have retreated into a tunnel, too, seeking a quiet that never was.

About the Author
Sam Ser is a former news editor at The Times of Israel
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