Israel faces a momentous decision – whether or not to again launch a ground invasion of Gaza – most weighty because the lives and health of its soldiers and civilians are at stake. I number relatives and loved ones in both groups, so any decision is fraught with peril, uncertainty and the risk of catastrophe. The questions then become: what would be the strategic objectives of such an incursion, and how realistic is it – both in terms of present casualties and future political prospects – that those objectives can be achieved?
Since Biblical times, Gaza has been a source of vexation to the people of Israel. From there the Philistines harassed and occasionally dominated ancient Israel, and it was through the Philistines – by then an extinct people for centuries – which the 2nd century Roman Empire sought to erase any reference to the Jewish people by re-naming their conquest “Palestine.” For sure, Jews have resided in Gaza since ancient times, with thriving communities from the 16th century until the War of Independence in 1948, and after the Six-Day War for almost 40 years. More than twenty Jewish communities were destroyed by Israel in 2005 in a reckless and counterproductive act whose real legacy is once again on display this week. As predicted then, Gaza became a haven for terrorists, the source for the relentless harassment of Israelis through rockets and missiles fired at civilians, and the base for Hamas.
It is remarkable how few Israelis seek to recall the provenance of their current predicament, perhaps because so many of the politicians responsible for that debacle are still in positions of prominence and influence. Although missiles were shot sporadically from Gaza even when it was ruled by Israel, it was much more limited in scope and more readily halted. There would be no need now to debate the risks of a ground invasion – and since the Expulsion, for the second time – because the military bases would still be there. Soldiers would not have to navigate through minefields, booby-trapped homes and underground weapons caches. Aside from the devastating human cost of the Expulsion, the task of pacifying Gaza has become infinitely more difficult. We can lament the past, but it is more productive to learn from it.
What are the strategic objectives of Hamas in this conflict? Bear in mind something that is rarely referenced – that Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction. Its raison d’être according to its charter is the elimination of the Jewish state and it has pledged to wage eternal war until it achieves that goal. It has mortgaged the lives of its fighters, their families and now all Gazans for a successful realization of its vision. Thus, Hamas is Nazi-like in its inspiration, aspiration and policies.
Their short-term goals are several: to kill Jews; to sow terror among the Israeli people; to test its weapons capabilities for future conflicts; to deflect attention from Iran’s nuclear program; to test the reactions of the American administration which it perceives as weak and not fully supportive of Israel; and, especially, to acquire further ammunition for its war of delegitimization against Israel.
The latter demands special emphasis, because it explains the glee of the Palestinians at the death or injury of their own civilian population. They love nothing better than to trumpet the evils of the Israelis who kill innocent civilians – babies! Unsaid of course, but now recognized by all decent people who pay attention, Hamas deliberately places its weapons, rocket launchers and offensive capabilities in the very heart of its civilian population – right next to, and sometimes even inside its schools, day care centers, hospitals and mosques.
That is the height of evil cynicism. They deliberately shoot their missiles at Israeli civilian targets, and then squeal like mice when their civilians – ensconced in what are effectively military zones – are hit. Certainly they do not expect their use of their civilian population as human shields to gain them immunity from attack; what they do expect is that their civilians will be killed or injured, giving them a propaganda coup amongst the venal and the gullible across the world by their feigned, pained expressions of anguish. That is why they have adopted the macabre practice of staging scenes of the injured and dead – and then having those “victims” get up and walk away when the cameras are turned off; that is why they have already this week utilized graphic pictures of fathers holding their wounded children – even though the pictures are from Syria, and from last month. (Israel has done remarkably well this time around in responding almost instantly to every Arab fabrication.)
And that is how they are trying to rile up the Arab world and win sympathy and support for themselves, even though the 100 Arabs killed in the past week pale before the 40,000 (!) Arabs killed in Syrian fighting in the last year or so, without respite and without any desire of the Arab world to intervene to halt that bloodshed. Every time one thinks that the Arabs have reached a new low in raw hypocrisy, they dig a little deeper. Those who think that they somehow care about the lives and wellbeing of their people have probably never heard of the phenomenon known as the “suicide bomber.” They don’t care about human life the same way we do; to think otherwise is to project onto them Western values that they do not share and in fact ridicule. A Hamas spokesman years ago brazenly touted their “advantage” in these battles: “We love death like the Jews love life.” Add to that the simple fact that this civilian population voted for the racist, genocidal and suicidal policies of Hamas, then any sympathy for them is grossly misplaced. Those who really are innocent should leave, and quickly, because they have linked their destinies to those of the malevolent mass murderers who govern them. Facilitating that would be an honorable mission of the Arab world today.
From an Arab perspective, they have achieved most of their goals already. They have killed Jews, sown terror, challenged the Americans, garnered their propaganda photos and tested their weaponry. Their major “demand” now is that Israel end its embargo on Gaza, the better to allow Hamas to import more missiles and even heavier weapons. Heaven forbid if Hamas would acquire guidance systems for their missiles, which now have the capability of reaching Israel’s largest cities and population centers. Such an agreement would embolden Hamas, grant it a major victory, and make the next war even deadlier.
What are Israel’s strategic objectives in the current conflict? As always, those are more difficult to ascertain, because Israel once again was forced to respond. (From Bizarro World: Hamas claims that Israel is the aggressor here and must make concessions. Follow the logic: Hamas has been indiscriminately firing rockets at Israel for years, with an increase in the last month. Since Israel responded only last week, Israel changed the rules of the game – the passive acceptance of rockets on its civilians – and is therefore the aggressor.) Israel’s obsession with avoiding civilian casualties, even to the immoral extent of risking its own soldiers’ lives, and even though it is the only such army in the world held to such a standard, greatly limits its maneuverability. But what are its goals, ultimately?
The problem is that what those goals are and what they should be are not identical. Israel wants stability on its southern border, and an end to missile attacks on its civilian population. It wants Hamas isolated internationally. It wants the world to halt the Iranian nuclear program. It wants to avoid an escalation in the north, where Hezbollah sits atop Lebanon with even more advanced and deadly weaponry than Hamas has. It wants to avoid a propaganda victory for Hamas that a large scale death of Arab civilians would engender. It wants to avoid casualties to and the capture of its own soldiers – anytime, but certainly in an election year.
Notice how none of Israel’s strategic objectives are solely or even primarily within its control. That is why it is consistently on the defensive, reacting to events but never taking the initiative to transform its strategic situation. One Israeli general this week described the current operation as “mowing the lawn.” Every few years, Israel has to “mow the lawn,” i.e., degrade the capabilities of the enemy and thereby buy a few years’ relative tranquility. Ultimately, that is a defeatist attitude, as the enemy’s capabilities only increase. It is certainly not worth the lives of Israeli soldiers to “mow the lawn.” The grass just grows back, higher and more unruly; on the other hand, dead is dead.
A ground invasion is only worthwhile if there are strategic objectives that are achievable and can be enduring. One typical calculation involves war game theory. A war today that costs 1X casualties might be more desirable than a war in 2-3 years that will cost 3X or 5X casualties. Israel has to project the future capabilities of its enemy, as well as the reliability of the future support of its own allies (i.e., ally). A definite war today might not be sensible if casualties in a potential future war are only 2X. A war might be more beneficial today if the Obama administration two years hence is projected to be less supportive of Israel. (President Obama is in a predicament. Certainly, he has endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense, a gesture that is perceived by his supporters as unusually magnanimous, instead of what it really is: obvious. But he has also insisted that Israel not invade Gaza, which means that he prefers the status quo. But the status quo harms Israel.)
What should be Israel’s strategic objectives in a ground invasion? Nothing less than the destruction of Hamas and an end to its genocidal ambitions. (Of course, those ambitions will remain, but operating from exile, Hamas, like the PLO before Oslo planted them in the heartland of Israel, will be much less effective and an annoyance more than a threat.) It certainly can be done – although to announce it in advance would essentially pre-empt its implementation – and it is better accomplished with aerial bombing that weakens their resistance and Special Forces to capture and kill the leadership, rather than a full scale ground invasion.
Israel must re-assert its control over Gaza; it is the only way in the real world in which we live to prevent the recurrence of the same (or deadlier) quandary in another few years. Clearly, the hostile elements among the civilian population must be encouraged to find their happiness and fortunes elsewhere, and a world genuinely interested in their plight should facilitate that. In fact, an uninhabited Sinai Peninsula begs for them, and they could even live there in greater comfort with limitless land at their disposal – an end to the densely-crowded conditions in which they live and in which their problems fester.
This requires Israel to acknowledge that Hamas is their enemy, dedicated to their extermination, and so must be eliminated. There can be no rapprochement with a genocidal foe.
The downside, of course, is that such might prompt a violent response from Hezbollah –and from those in the international community who are devoted to the establishment of Palestinian states that render Israel more and more vulnerable. The upside is that, if not done, Israel will come under increasing pressure to make additional concessions, both to Hamas and to the PA – including the destruction of more settlements in Judea and Samaria and the formal recognition of a Palestinian state. If that happens, of course, then the current situation in Gaza will be replicated in Israel’s heartland in a few years, and life will become unbearable.
That process can be forestalled and even reversed, but only if Israel’s takes the initiative to transform the strategic dynamic in which it has operated for decades, including abandoning the illusory pursuit of peace with enemies sworn to its destruction. Otherwise, it is not worth soldiers’ lives for another paper agreement, or to strengthen Hamas through more concessions, or simply to kick the can down the road.
Frankly, there is no alternative other than to change the dynamic, and revitalize Israel for the struggles ahead. It is not a simple decision by any means.
May G-d bless Israel, its leaders and soldiers, to make the decision that is right, proper, wise and just, and to carry it out with efficiency, alacrity, and success.