Nov 27 2012

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Israel, Gaza & the Middle East

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Testing a Shield

After eight days of combat operations, a tenuous cease-fire has ended the recent military clash between Hamas and the Israelis. Looking back, are the Israelis better off today than they were when they decided to retaliate against on-going Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory?

Let’s first acknowledge that the right of Israel to strike back is beyond question.

Find me a UN member state that would tolerate repeated rocket attacks against its civilian population without responding swiftly.

Indeed, it is ironic that Turkey, whose Prime Minister labeled Israel a “terrorist state” for exercising its right to self defense after repeated Hamas missile attacks, wasted no time in shelling Syrian military sites when errant shells landed in Turkish territory in October.

Apparently this new, higher standard for self defense only applies to the Israelis.

And it does appear that the Israelis had a plan, which significantly weakened Hamas’ command and control structure and degraded its missile stocks and launching sites.

But was it enough? Specifically, were the costs of the operation worth the results?

As usual, the Israelis took a beating in the press.

The “David and Goliath” story line was informed by Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza that vastly outnumbered Israeli civilians who died at the hands of Hamas rocket attacks. That the disparity can be at least partially explained by Hamas’ ruthless decision to locate missile batteries in densely populated civilian areas goes unmentioned.

And Israel faced a new and complicating political reality as the result of the attacks with the new, post Arab Spring Egyptian government offering support for Hamas – something unthinkable under the Mubarak regime – and with senior officials from Egypt and the Gulf states making high profile visits to Gaza City in support of Hamas during the military operations, a decided shift that bolsters Hamas.

A dangerous neighborhood has now been confirmed as even less hospitable for Israel.

And then there is the cease-fire agreement brokered by the Egyptians. It is hard to see how the Israelis won anything here.

Hamas deputy political leader Mousa Abu Marzook stated yesterday that the terrorist group is still intent on bringing more weapons into Gaza, even as an Israeli delegation landed in Cairo for renewed three way talks on the cease fire. Israel is necessarily relying on assurances from Egypt that it will clamp down on gun-running from the Sinai peninsula into Gaza, but Muslim Brotherhood member and Egyptian President Morsi’s obvious sympathy for Hamas, makes Egypt the weakest link in any tangible and sustainable weapons ban.

Without the pipeline for weapons effectively shut down, Israel has agreed, in principle under the ceasefire, to, “Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents free movements and targeting residents in border areas…” This is a huge Israeli concession that comes without any companion security guarantees for Israelis. Indeed, open border crossings, at least as envisioned by Hamas, could pose a more serious threat to Israeli security.

In sum, in an eight-day campaign, the Israelis degraded the ability of Hamas to attack Israel, but the offensive changed none of the underlying structural issues that impact Israeli security. At best, the Israelis have engineered a “time out” to get breathing space after months of Hamas provocations.

So what was Bibi Netanyahu thinking?

Perhaps the PM has bigger fish to fry.

Israel holds elections in January. No sitting PM seeking re-election can allow constant missile attacks on Israel’s territory and have credibility on security issues. Politically speaking, Hamas had to be dealt with, and Netanyahu may have bought enough time to get past the elections.

The eight day engagement also allowed the Israelis to test systems and tactics under battlefield conditions.

The much maligned Iron Dome anti-missile system proved its worth, intercepting over 85 percent of Hamas rockets during the conflict. Iron Dome is but one part of Israel’s concept of a multi-layered missile defense that can guard against both short range rockets possessed by Hamas and the longer range variety deployed by Hezbollah and Iran.

Also, the Israelis had the opportunity to test tactics in targeting and destroying Hamas missile sites and command and control structures. Lessons learned can be incorporated into future plans in the event hostilities break out again.

And finally, the Israelis had the chance to test their civil defense preparations on a wider scale, under war conditions; a sad but necessary prerequisite if a wider Middle East war was to occur.

All of these lessons are useful from the perspective of Gaza, but more so when you look at the greater Middle East. From an Israeli perspective, Hamas is an aggravated symptom of a larger problem.

The fundamental challenge was and remains Iran.

It is Iran that arms Hamas. It is Iran that supports and arms Hezbollah. It is Iran that stands with and props up the Assad regime in Syria. It is Iran that seeks to destabilize Sunni states in the Gulf with Shiite populations.

It is Iran that seeks a nuclear weapons capability.

Judged from this perspective, the Gaza operation was both an imperative and importantly, a test – a readiness exercise as a possible prelude to something much more dangerous still to come.









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