July 24, 2014
Analysis: Ground operation should be expanded deep into the southern Strip’s populated area, but without a diplomatic move the battle against Hamas will not end in the near future.
Without a diplomatic maneuver alongside the ground maneuver being performed by the IDF, the battle against Hamas will not end in the near future. Even if a ceasefire is reached in the coming days, it will reflect the absence of a real military victory and will set the stopwatch in motion ahead of the next conflict.
Clearly, Israel has an immensely greater military force and endurance than Hamas. The home front is willing to pay the price so that the rocket problem will be solved in the long run, the Iron Dome system is doing an excellent job, contributing to the public’s stamina, the operation aimed at destroying the offensive tunnels is extremely crucial, and the political and security echelons have so far been exercising the caution required while fighting in such a complex arena.
But the most significant problem is that Hamas has nothing to lose, precisely because it is in such a bad condition. It’s in trouble with Egypt, it doesn’t have any real allies apart from Qatar and Turkey which are looking to become relevant – to no avail, the economic situation of both Hamas and the Gaza Strip is bad, Hamas is unable to pay the salaries of its people and public workers in the Strip, and the feeling of isolation and siege is deeper than ever.
Even worse, the reconciliation move, which Hamas saw as a strategic move aimed at improving its situation and receiving legitimacy, has failed for now.
In the past year, Hamas has been pushed into a desperate situation as far as the organization is concerned, and is willing to pay a heavy price (mainly in casualties among its own people) in order to reshuffle the strategic cards.
Israel has been dragged into a crisis that Hamas has been preparing for very well militarily in the past few years, brutally taking advantage of all the Strip’s weaknesses in a bid to breach the diplomatic siege and isolation – and to reach a significant achievement in the intra-Palestinian arena.
But Hamas has been facing several problems: In addition to a very tough Israeli response, Iron Dome has been preventing a real achievement so far despite the volume of the rocket fire and impressive ranges.
And so Hamas is getting caught in a situation with no real tie-breaking move, and all that it is left for the organization to do is to rely on the ongoing launching abilities of its underground rocket arsenal and desperately search for an achievement which it would be able to present as a strategic one: From infiltrating a community and slaughtering civilians, through dealing our forces a serious blow or kidnapping one soldier or more or civilians, to a rocket strike which will leave many Israeli casualties.
According to my understanding, Hamas will agree to considerably relax its conditions only if it realizes that its ongoing rule in the Gaza Strip is in real danger.
The Israeli government has the option to continue and even deepen the ground operation into the populated areas, where the Hamas leaders and the rocket launchers are hiding. Such effective military pressure could significantly reduce and even halt the rocket fire completely (depending on the extent of the populated area which will come under IDF control) and create, as far as the State of Israel is concerned, several options for ending the crisis, ranging from a full occupation and cleansing of the Strip to ending the operation as soon as Hamas starts feeling the pressure and agrees to accept the conditions set out for it.
Such an operation could be conducted in two stages: The initial stage of taking control of the territory, which could last several weeks, and the stage of cleansing the area we have seized of terrorists, tunnels, rockets, terror labs and weapon production lines, which could take from several months up to a year or two, in accordance with the size of the handled area.
The government’s lack of enthusiasm to deepen the operation into the Strip’s crowded population areas is understandable. It’s a military, humanitarian and political challenge of the highest level. It will also carry a very painful price in human life.
Nonetheless, I believe that we will be able to make real achievements in such an operation because, in my opinion, even if we face tough resistance in some places, the stamina of Hamas’ military wing in a direct clash with the IDF is much lower than people think.
The problem is that the absence of such an operation will create a very problematic situation of status quo, which means mutual bloodshed without an ability to decide the battle.
As time goes by, the Israeli public will judge the government’s achievements not according to the number of destroyed homes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, not according to the number of destroyed tunnels, not according to the number of bombed launchers, and definitely not according to the ratio of casualties between the Palestinian population and the Israeli population.
The Israeli public wants first and foremost a stable and long-term ceasefire, alongside a strategic solution for the rocket threat, the offensive tunnel threat and the serious threat of terror from the Gaza Strip. I believe that we are quickly approaching the stage in which the public will start asking profound questions, and rightfully so.
The status quo danger
Israel must score a very significant achievement before complications begin, such as the revival of additional fronts in Judea and Samaria, protest rallies on the part of Israel’s Arab citizens, or even a flare-up on the northern front. In addition, the relative international credit the State of Israel has received so far may quickly evaporate.
In the situation which has been created there are several alternatives which are quite difficult from a military perspective: Removing the ground forces from the Strip will be perceived as a Hamas achievement and will not bring the end of the crisis closer; leaving the forces in the unpopulated area will make them vulnerable to attacks and will not affect the situation; expanding the operation to the Hamas strongholds in the populated area will create significant pressure on Hamas but will involve many casualties.
I believe that the best option is to expand the ground operation, because we must not let the operation end in a status quo. In order to create effective pressure on Hamas throughout the front, the operation must be expanded and deepened into the southern Strip, into the Khan Younis and Rafah district.
This is a territory which can be militarily isolated in a much better way and disconnected from the northern Strip, and the IDF can take over Khan Younis and Rafah and cleanse them of the terror infrastructures. Such a treatment will also affect the morale of Hamas in the northern Strip.
At the same time, we must increase the pressure on the northern Strip from the ground and from the air, but without deepening the invasion into the populated areas at this stage.
The proper strategy in the current situation is two-headed: On the military side, we must continue increasing the pressure significantly, while at the same time we must build a significant diplomatic move. As the military pressure on Hamas becomes more effective, the ability to implement the diplomatic move will grow.
In any event, the suggested diplomatic move is very complicated, and its success is not guaranteed, but the initiating side is expected to gain real advantages even if the initiative fails.
The tie-breaking initiative should be presented to Hamas at the right timing as a hot potato, which will force it to make extremely significant decisions. If it accepts the initiative which I am about to elaborate on, we will benefit. If it refuses, its condition will worsen.
The diplomatic initiative must be based on three significant factors. The first and most vital one is Egypt, the second and most desirable one is the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the third and crucial factor is the Arab League and the international community led by the United States.
The initiative must be based on a deal with the following logic: “The deeper the demilitarization, the deeper the gestures and incentives to the strip.” It is based on the following components.
The security component:
1. An absolute, long-term ceasefire.
2. A mutual ending to all types of attacks (including targeted assassinations).
3. A gradual demilitarization of the Strip of all types of high-trajectory weapons.
4. Halting the production and/or smuggling of weapons.
5. Shutting down the offensive and smuggling tunnels.
6. International supervision of all of the above.
The civilian component:
1. Fully lifting the economic, land and naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, including opening all the crossings and operating the Gaza port, which will allow the entry of goods, fuel and the rest of the Palestinian needs – under international supervision.
2. Expanding the fishing area to 12 miles.
3. Freedom of movement for Palestinian citizens in the Gaza Strip’s border areas in without buffer zones.
4. An implementation of an international plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip, which will be coordinated and executed with the Palestinian unity government (subject to its acceptance of the Quartet conditions) led by Mahmoud Abbas.
These components should be at the basis of the diplomatic proposal which will be initiated by the State of Israel and put on the table by the Arab League or several Arab states, with the backing of the US and the international community.
According to the initiative, subject to the demilitarization of the Strip of military abilities, Israel and Egypt will ease the siege and the routine life of the Strip’s residents in many way, and a significant restoration plan for Gaza will be launched, This is an appropriate goal which is in line with the long-term Israeli interest.
As a result, Hamas will face a very complicated dilemma and will be forced to explain why it refuses to accept such a generous offer, which guarantees a huge improvement in the Strip’s situation in exchange for removing its weapons and gaining international legitimacy, as well as a significant restoration plan for the Gaza Strip.
In order to reduce the suspiciousness and mistrust, the implementation must be gradual and conditional, in a way which will be determined in advance and under international supervision.
Israel only stands to gain
With just a little vision, such a diplomatic initiative could serve later on as an important basis for advancing a regional agreement which will subsequently settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.
From my personal acquaintanceship with Hamas’ hedonist and detached political leadership, the logic it is usually led by will not necessarily lead to the desirable agreement. But if it conducts itself sensibly, the State of Israel has nothing to lose from such an initiative. It only stands to gain from it.
And if Hamas rejects the plan out of hand and continues the military conflict, the State of Israel will have to show its resolve to go all the way, even towards a complete occupation of the Strip and destroying the Hamas rule.
This is a scenario which will not generate real winners. In such a type of fighting, both sides will suffer many casualties, and at its end the Hamas rule will collapse and the State of Israel will be required to stay in the area for a year or two in order to cleanse if of the terroristic elements and the many terror infrastructures which have been built in it.
If we are required to do so, we should already start thinking about scenarios for the diplomatic conclusion of such a move. For this purpose, Israel must quit its policy of denial and stop willingly moving around in strategic darkness. It must make a courageous decision on its borders and present a credible peace plan which is in line with the basic interest: To gain recognized and permanent borders and maintain a Jewish and democratic State of Israel.
Just like Israel must use an iron first against terror, it must extend its other hand to a diplomatic agreement.
Yuval Diskin is a former Shin Bet chief.