The Olmert-Livni-Barak government's latest exercise in saber-rattling has ended with customary haste.
Sunday Palestinian terror forces maintained their rocket and missile offensive against Israel, shooting 40 rockets, including upgraded Katyusha missiles at Sderot, Ashkelon, Netivot and surrounding areas. Whereas in 2005, 25,000 Israelis lived within Palestinian rocket and missile range from Gaza, the past week has shown that the number has expanded at least tenfold since then.
Monday morning, the limited IDF ground component that was deployed in Gaza on Saturday abruptly suspended operations and pulled out. The pullout came just hours after senior IDF officials announced that the forces in Gaza were about to be augmented by additional forces and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told senior military commanders, "The time has come for action. Hamas is responsible and will pay a price."
IT IS obvious that in suspending Operation "Hot Winter" in Gaza, the Olmert-Livni-Barak government essentially crumpled in the face of pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush. Sunday night the White House issued a press release demanding that Israel end its operations in Gaza and return to the negotiating table with Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas.
FOR THEIR part, Abbas and his Fatah underlings have been outspoken in their support for Hamas's missile and rocket offensive against Israel. Sunday they organized joint Fatah-Hamas rallies in Hebron and Ramallah where rioters called for Israel's destruction, burned Israeli and American flags and then attacked IDF patrols and the security fence.
Truth be told, the US may have done Israel a favor preventing the escalation of operations. This is not because an offensive against Hamas's Iranian built war machine in Gaza is not vital. This is so because Operation "Hot Winter" was bereft of operational logic. Its strategic ends were unclear and, to the extent they were enunciated at all by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Barak, they bore no connection to the operations on the ground which were so limited in scope that they were incapable of achieving any long-term objective.
In one form or another, Olmert, Livni and Barak all said that the goal of Operation Hot Winter was to end the Palestinians' missile and rocket campaign against the Western Negev generally and against Ashkelon in particular. They intimated as well that the strategic objective of the campaign was to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza, and reinstall a Fatah government. Beyond that they said that they sought to kill or capture Hamas's leadership.
But the Olmert-Livni-Barak government gave the IDF insufficient tools to achieve these grandiose plans. They only allowed the IDF to deploy one infantry brigade and two partial tank battalions. They refused to expand the operation to a divisional sized force, which would still have been too small to achieve any significant or long-lasting results. The limited geographical scope of the IDF operation – in a 2-3 kilometer zone in northern Gaza – had no impact of Hamas's ability to continue to shoot off rockets and missiles whose ranges run from 5-25 kilometers. In short, the Olmert-Livni-Barak government enunciated operational and strategic objectives that it clearly had no intention of achieving.
TODAY THE Gaza Strip is a terror state run by an Iranian proxy. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005, Hamas and its terror partners in Fatah and Islamic Jihad have built terror armies along the model of Hizbullah. Hamas forces have received training in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. They have built up formidable arsenals of Katyusha and Kassam rockets as well as anti-tank missiles. And, according to Fatah and other sources, they have been augmented not only by Iranian, Syrian and Hizbullah operatives. Al-Qaida has also built up a presence in the area.
This combined force successfully overwhelmed Egyptian forces along Gaza's border with Egypt in January. Its current capacity has rendered extensive portions of southern Israel exposed to missile and mortar attacks. And unless it is routed militarily, its capabilities will only grow.
Israel has limited options to contend with the present and growing threat. For the Olmert-Livni-Barak government, the easiest solution would be to have someone else fight Hamas and its allies for Israel. But no such proxy force exists. Both the Americans and the Olmert-Livni-Barak government operate under the assumption that Fatah is a reasonable proxy. But experience has shown that this is not the case. From September 2005 when Israel withdrew its forces until June 2007 when Hamas ousted Fatah from power, Abbas and his US-trained forces did nothing to curb Hamas's growing power or limit Iran's growing control over Hamas. Confronted by Hamas forces last June, Fatah forces cut and ran rather than fight and those who remained were largely integrated into Hamas's burgeoning army. Since June, Fatah has shown no willingness to confront Hamas. And over the past week of Hamas's escalated missile offensive, Fatah stood foursquare with Hamas against Israel.
THEN TOO, the notion that an international force could be deployed in Gaza to protect Israel from the growing terror army at its doorstep similarly lacks credibility. At no time has any international force – whatever its composition – ever been interested or capable of defending Israel against Arab terror or military offensives – whether from Gaza, from Lebanon or indeed from Egypt or Syria. And there is no reason to believe that this historic state of affairs will change significantly in the future.
In the absence of proxies, Israel has two options going forward. First, it can incapacitate Hamas and second it can try to deter Hamas. To incapacitate Hamas, Israel must launch an operation aimed at cutting off Hamas's logisitical supply lines through the border with Egypt. It must fight Hamas forces on the ground with the aim of defeating them, and it must kill or capture Hamas's senior and mid-level leadership. Given that like Hizbullah, Hamas and its state-sponsors will seek to regenerate any diminished capacities by rearming and promoting new leaders, these operations must be continuous. Consequently, to incapacitate Hamas, and so secure southern Israel, Israel requires a continuous military presence in the Gaza Strip.
The Olmert-Livni-Barak government has repeatedly rejected the redeployment of IDF forces to Gaza for any significant length of time. But they have never been called on to explain why the current state of affairs, in which an Iranian-proxy army with al-Qaida components is permitted to grow in close proximity to its civilian centers is preferable to such a long-term military presence in Gaza.
AS TO deterrence, it is unclear that it is possible to embrace deterrence as a strategy without first establishing a continuous military presence in Gaza. To succeed, deterrence must be based upon a credible threat to exact a cost for aggression that Hamas is unwilling to pay. In sending its leadership to ground while encouraging Gazans to confront IDF forces and "martyr" themselves, Hamas made clear that it views the sacrifice of its leadership as an unacceptable cost for its aggression. And yet, without forces on the ground in Gaza, the IDF lacks the intelligence necessary to conduct a wide-scale and successful assault on Hamas's leaders. So today, Israel lacks the capacity to base its operations in Gaza on a deterrence model.
There is an additional option which the government seems interested in adopting which is to conduct a new offensive every so often, when attacks foment a public outcry for action. It is far from clear though that this option is less costly either militarily or politically than maintaining a continuous presence
in Gaza. Given Hamas's continuously expanding capabilities, each such operation will exact a large cost in the lives of IDF soldiers who will be required to repeatedly fight their way into Gaza. Moreover, each time Israel returns to Gaza it faces renewed international condemnation for taking action. A continuous presence in Gaza would not incur such costs.
Both Rice and the Olmert-Livni-Barak government argue that a renewed military presence in Gaza is a poor option because it would render negotiations towards the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem non-viable. But then, if those negotiations were successful, they would lead to the imposition of a Fatah-Hamas terror state which would not only not protect southern Israel from missile and rocket attack, it would expose central Israel to similar aggression.
It is unclear then, why the strategic aim they seek to achieve would leave Israel better off than an operation aimed at incapacitating Palestinian-Iranian terror forces and safeguarding Israeli territory from attack.
OTHER VOICES argue that a continuous Israeli presence along the Gaza-Egypt border would make it impossible for Israel to completely disengage from Gaza by enabling the Palestinians to link up with Egypt instead of Israel for electricity and other supplies. Israel, they claim, would still be perceived as responsible for Gaza and for the welfare of its Hamas-supporting population. These voices fail to ask a simple question: In whose eyes would Israel be considered responsible for Gaza's population?
The issue of Israel's responsibility under international law for the welfare of Gazans is an open one. Israel is not obligated to advance the aims of the Palestinians by accepting such responsibility. Beyond that, whether foreign governments perceive Israel as responsible for Gaza is not something that Israel can determine. The most it can do is seek to divest others of such a perception by explaining why it is not responsible for the welfare of Gaza's population.
By sending insufficient forces willy-nilly into Gaza over the weekend while conducting aerial bombings of empty buildings, Olmert, Livni and Barak showed that they have learned none of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War. Indeed, Barak showed that he has learned nothing from his experience as prime minister at the start of the Palestinian terror war in September 2000, when he responded to the lynching of Israeli reservists in Ramallah by bombing empty buildings and making empty threats to Yasser Arafat while begging him to take the Temple Mount.
How long will this unacceptable state of affairs be allowed to continue?
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.