The Fighting in Gaza: Where is it Going?

January 8, 2009
By Shlomo Brom
This analysis was first published by INSS Insight No. 85, December 31, 2008.

By Shlomo Brom.

On December 27, 2008, Israel embarked on an extensive offensive against Hamas’ military and government assets in the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas’ decision not to extend the ceasefire and instead expand the scope of its attacks against Israeli civilian targets. Despite the many assessments, including in the media, about the possibility of military action, Hamas was surprised by the timing of the Israeli operation and its extent. In the first stage of the fighting, the Palestinians sustained heavy losses – some 300 dead and 600 wounded – alongside widespread damage to installations, command centres, and arms caches. Hamas responded with rocket and mortar fire against Israeli settlements, though at least initially to a degree less than anticipated – probably because of the shock caused by the heavy damage inflicted on its launch capabilities and some successful interception by Israel of Hamas launch teams.

According to Prime Minister Olmert, the objectives of the operation are "to improve the security situation in the southern part of the country" and in Defense Minister Barak's terms, “to change the situation from the foundation and ensure that there will be no more fire or other activity coming from the Gaza Strip.” Wider objectives – such as overthrowing the Hamas regime or conquest of the Gaza Strip – were not presented. This suggests that the method of operation has been chosen to exact a toll of Hamas and weaken it in order to create a new balance of deterrence between Israel and Hamas, assuming that Hamas will exercise more restraint in initiating attacks against Israel once it grasps the steep price it will have to pay and its limited ability to cope with the Israeli response. In other words, Israel is striving for a new, stable, and long lasting ceasefire with a weakened Hamas under terms that reflect the change in the balance of power. Among the new conditions would be a ban on Hamas activity near the border with Israel and limiting, to the extent possible, the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip.

Weakening Hamas

Hamas will do what it can to prevent this outcome. It would seem that its basic objective is also a new ceasefire, but on its own terms, i.e., with no limits on its ability to operate in the Gaza Strip area and along the Egyptian border, and with crossings to Egypt and Israel that are open regularly. Hamas' primary available tool is continued harassment of Israel; this joins the basic drive to exact a heavy cost from Israel for every blow against the organisation, and the desire to avenge the large number of Palestinian casualties and the Hamas activists heavily represented among them.

The primary component of Hamas’ response is its continued ability to launch rockets and mortars of a long enough range to disrupt the daily routine of many Israeli civilians. However, its main problem is that the IDF has successfully struck a significant portion of Hamas' capabilities and to a considerable degree suppressed the organisation’s ability to deploy the forces left at its disposal. Therefore, Hamas is likely to try to rehabilitate its ability to deploy its forces, ideally with reduced exposure to IDF deterrent capabilities (the weather could be of assistance, if visibility worsens), and at the same time resort to other means of attack. By its own declarations, Hamas will try first of all to dispatch suicide bombers to Israel from the West Bank. A central question is thus to what extent Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, badly damaged by preventive measures taken by Israel's security forces as well as by counter operations by the PA, is capable of launching suicide attacks of significant scope. Certainly the motivation to carry out such missions is very high. The organisation can also try to surprise the IDF with suicide attacks and kidnappings from the Gaza Strip area. In addition, Hamas may deviate from its usual modus operandi and engage in a dramatic terrorist attack abroad, assisted by elements such as Hizbollah or Iran.

What is Israel's exit strategy?

As is common in these situations, Israel’s primary problem is finding an exit strategy. That is, how are the achievements of the military campaign translated into the desired results? Such a strategy impacts on the length of the campaign and the additional steps that may be taken, and here a central question is whether ground operations are necessary. The main risk is that – partly due to the success of the initial military moves – Israel will get caught up in the view that it is necessary to eliminate physically the rocket fire capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist organisations from the Gaza Strip. There is no way of attaining such a goal with standoff fire, and even a partial conquest of the Gaza Strip would not be sufficient. The range of the rockets, the short distances of the settlements from the Gaza Strip, and the narrow width of the Gaza Strip are such that in order to completely prevent any fire on Israeli settlements Israel would have to conquer the entire Gaza Strip and clear it of all armed elements. The costs of such an operation – including the political and economic costs of re-conquering Gaza and assuming responsibility for it, and the direct cost of such fighting – are high, and therefore it is in Israel’s interest to avoid undertaking such a mission.

Even if Israel avoids setting itself such an objective, there is still a risk that the military action will be extended beyond what is strictly necessary, based on the idea that standoff fire and limited ground manoeuvres can effectively neutralise Palestinian fire almost completely. This does not mean that there will be no need for certain ground operations in order both to demonstrate to Hamas unequivocally the costs it has to pay and to attack the elements that so far have been less hurt by the fighting, in particular terrorist elements such as the Izz a-Din al-Qassam forces.

The quest for able mediators

Statements made by Israeli leaders suggest they understand this analysis. They are preparing the public for a long campaign, a lesson from the Second Lebanon War when the leaders fostered unrealistic expectations, but it is fairly clear from the limited objectives that they would prefer to end the fighting as soon as these limited objectives are attained.

There are two possible mechanisms for attaining the goals. The first is striving for an agreement or understandings with Hamas about a ceasefire under new terms through mediators from the Arab world and beyond who would be able to negotiate with both sides. This arrangement suffers from several drawbacks: first, Hamas’ difficulty in formally instituting a ceasefire under less desirable terms than before; and second, Israel’s concern that these agreements lend legitimacy to Hamas. The first drawback may be overcome by making sure the agreement also regulates the opening of the border crossings, perhaps not in full as Hamas demands but in a way that would respond to the needs of the population. The problem is that adding this element would strengthen Hamas’ legitimacy even more. On the other hand, the advantage of an agreement or understandings is the ability to create a more stable ceasefire than before, in which it is very clear what is allowed and what is not, and perhaps even the ability to establish a monitoring mechanism to handle ceasefire-related issues such as the monitoring group in southern Lebanon after Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996).

The second mechanism is a unilateral ceasefire on the part of both sides (as the result of a United Nations Security Council resolution, for example), under terms in which the price of transgressing the ceasefire terms would be made very clear to Hamas. This would require no agreement or formal understandings. Such a ceasefire is less stable because the two sides may offer different interpretations of what is allowed and what is not, without there being any sort of mechanism to handle problems that arise.

Above all, it is necessary to find mediators who can examine the different options and help end the fighting so that Israel's strategic objectives of the campaign will be realised based on the military moves that serve these objectives.