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Lessons from the Gaza War By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anonymous, top-ranking Israeli political and military officials are said to believe that Israel regained its “reputation for invincibility” in Gaza, Hamas suffered a severe blow, and Israel succeeded in “call[ing] overdue international attention to the tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle its arsenal.” A military official said—boasted is more like it—to the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens that “We have no desire to go back into Gaza. We decided we’re not going to spend five years [in Gaza] like the five years Americans spent in Iraq.”

It sounds like an Israeli dream come true. Most Israelis (1) don’t want to be in Gaza but (2) also don’t want rockets being smuggled into Gaza and fired from it into Israeli cities. Apparently some in Israel’s top circles think the three-week Operation Cast Lead achieved both aims—meaning Gaza has ceased to be a problem for Israel, or, if it continues to be one, others (Egypt, the “international community”) will handle it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday Hamas—not yet seeming all that intimidated—again violated its self-declared ceasefire by firing eight mortars at Israel and also firing twice at Israeli forces in and bordering Gaza. Israel responded with an air strike on one of the mortar launchers. By Wednesday all Israeli troops had left Gaza, but Kadima politician Tzahi Hanegbi said that “Hamas militants face a simple equation. If the [rocket] fire resumes, we will respond with force so strong and overpowering, they will miss the day the Israel Air Force’s offensive began.”

It was also reported on Wednesday that “smuggling into Gaza from Egypt is underway again, only days after the end of the IDF operation against Hamas.” AP television news “showed Palestinian smugglers…filling a fuel truck with petrol that came through a cross-border tunnel from Egypt [and] workers busy clearing blocked tunnels and bulldozers carrying out other repairs.” Meanwhile Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit announced that Egypt would “not allow foreign naval forces to operate in its territorial waters to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza.”

And on the diplomatic front, it appears Israel’s newfound European friends—who, Israeli leaders have been claiming, now understand the gravity of the smuggling and will be helping to curb it—are already “piling pressure” on Israel to reopen the crossings into Gaza so humanitarian aid can get through. Israel is concerned, first, about the security implications of opening the crossings, and second, that aid sent in so precipitously will end up strengthening Hamas. For Europe to be dismissive of these concerns seems more like the bad old days before Operation Cast Lead.

How accurate are Israeli leaders’ upbeat assessments of the war and its repercussions, and is it too early to say? A few things can be said already at this stage:

1. Israel prevailed in the fighting. Thirteen Israelis—ten soldiers and three civilians—were killed, half of the soldiers in friendly-fire incidents; 1300 Palestinians, most of them Hamas personnel, were killed along with extensive destruction of facilities.

Stephens’s senior military official claims that Iran has “drawn a lesson” from this. “Once again, they saw that Israel has a good air force and good intelligence, and that the combination of the two can be deadly. Unlike in 2006, they saw a well-trained ground force. They found that asymmetrical warfare does not always play for them; that we can use asymmetrical approaches to overpower an asymmetrical threat.”

Apart from the fact that, as Stephens notes, Iran is building a nuclear capacity against Israel—entirely different in nature and magnitude from the kind of “asymmetrical” threat posed by Hamas—there are other reasons to question the deterrent effect of the war. Although, so long as the fighting lasted, Israel proved dominant, it didn’t last very long as the usual coalescence of media and diplomatic forces soon exerted huge pressure on Israel to desist. If Israel looked better militarily than against Hezbollah in 2006, it didn’t look any better geopolitically as the war highlighted its isolation and radically short timeline to pursue its aims.

2. Going by the information available, the war achieved nothing for Gilad Shalit—the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006 and held ever since presumably in Gaza—and may even have harmed his situation. Much depends on what, if anything, Israeli leaders know about his whereabouts and fate. Their claims that Israel is now “in a better position” to negotiate his release with Hamas ring particularly hollow. Hamas has always posed draconian demands of hundreds of lethal terrorists in return for Shalit and, to the extent that it was beaten and humiliated in the war, is likely to play its Shalit card for vengeance.

If Israel’s leaders indeed know something about Shalit’s fate, withdrawing thousands of troops from Gaza while something could still, possibly, have been done is difficult to justify. If they lack such information, it’s not one of the shining triumphs of Israeli intelligence.

3. One thing that did shine in the war was Israeli morale, both in the military and civilian domains. In the place where those two domains most intersect—reserve duty—conscription rates were over 100% with many volunteering for duty. Polls also show that, with the southern part of the country living under the rocket threat during the war, the public drew the appropriate political conclusions and is now even more inclined to vote in a right-wing coalition on February 10.

The likely advent of a right-wing Israeli government encourages greater optimism about the outcomes of the war. Such a government is more likely to respond harshly to further Hamas attacks and to insist that the smuggling be stopped including—if necessary, and it almost certainly is—an Israeli military role at the Gaza-Egypt border. Such a government is also less likely to strive to replace Hamas rule in Gaza with Fatah rule under the delusion that Fatah is a friend of Israel. It was under Fatah rule in Gaza that, in 2002, the Karine A was impounded on its way to the Strip with 50 tons of Iranian arms.

A right-wing Israeli government is also more likely to deal with the Iranian threat if there is no other alternative. But whether greater realism and resolve would put it on a collision course with the new U.S. administration is—still—another question mark.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/. He can be reached at pdavidh2001@yahoo.com.

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