When it comes to the use of force in the Gaza Strip there are no good alternatives. Almost all of them range from bad to worse
In light of the difficulties in reaching an agreement and a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, Hamas – which is in dire straits as Gaza approaches the status of humanitarian disaster – is signaling that it intends to reheat the sector in order to remind everyone that in the absence of a solution, the only option is war. Hamas chooses the place and the time it operates and escalates. The IDF’s Gaza Division is now required to deal with the continuing use of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and with the fact that the Friday demonstrations have moved mainly to the evening and night hours.
Hamas identified the IDF’s relative weakness in using effective means to disperse demonstrations during these hours, including the use of precision fire and snipers at night. At the same time, the terrorist organization operates raiding units that harass IDF soldiers securing the fence, by attempting to infiltrate into Israel, throwing explosive devices, shooting and sabotaging the fence itself. That leads to an increase in the number of casualties on the Palestinian side and to a feeling that the escalation is near.
Last Friday on KAN 11 TV, commentator Amir Bar-Shalom reported that the IDF is considering a limited and minor ground operation in the Gaza Strip in order to signal to Hamas that Israel is ready for a confrontation. The task, if decided, will naturally be imposed on the Gaza Division led by Brig.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, a paratrooper who did most of his service in the Nahal Brigade.
This is not a new idea. The IDF carried out dozens of limited ground operations over the years on all the fronts on which he operated. This method of raids was also practiced in the period before and after the disengagement. The commanders of the Gaza Division, Aviv Kochavi, followed by Moshe "Chico" Tamir, led a series of raids and operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
In January 2005, Kochavi, who acquired considerable experience when he led the 35th Paratroopers Brigade during the Second Intifada, commanded the "Oriental Step" operation, which was carried out by the Shimshon Battalion in response to the attack at the Karni Terminal. The force penetrated the heart of the Zeitun neighborhood, about which battalion commander Udi Ben Moha said, "It was a terrible blow to the terrorist organizations." During the operation, the battalion killed about 20 terrorists and destroyed weapons and infrastructure used by them.
Brig.-Gen. Moshe Tamir, who replaced the stars in August 2006, went even further, tasked some of those raids to reserve forces. In a way that is happening less and less often today. The raids of that time had clear operational logic. "Our activity prevents the terrorists from dealing with terror attacks on the other side of the fence and they are forced to concentrate on defense," said Tamir, who was an expert on such operations in his service in the Golani infantry brigade and in Lebanon.
The chief of staff at the time, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who served in the same units and places as Tamir, thought in the same way. In the last article he wrote in 2007 in "Haaretz" just before he died, veteran military commentator Ze’ev Schiff wrote that in response to Palestinian terrorists firing Kassam rockets from the Strip into Israel, "Ashkenazi has instructed Southern Command to prepare to mount incursions all across the Strip. These are not aimed at laying ambushes, but constitute broader penetrations." Although the forces who took part in these operations claimed that the level of soldiering demonstrated by Hamas operatives was higher than they expected, the risk was relatively low. Low but not nil. It is better to remember that such steps don’t come cheap. In one of these night raids in November 2007, during a skirmish with a Hamas squad that fired mortar shells at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, a soldier in the reserve paratroopers battalion, Sgt. Ehud Efrati, was killed.
The force recovered, killing one of the terrorists and wounding the other, who escaped. "We left 41 people and returned 40," said an officer in Efrati’s company, and briefly described the entire cost.
But Hamas of that time, as Tamir described it in a lecture in 2011, was an "immature, unprepared, disorganized" enemy. Today Hamas is well-prepared in Gaza, and it is hard to believe that there is there is a sector, certainly in the built-up areas, in which a raiding force will not encounter heavy resistance from a fortified and entrenched enemy. The organization operates above and below ground, using tunnel warfare in large scales.
Moreover, in those years, Hamas did not have rockets with a broader range than the surrounding settlements. Already by the time of Operation "Protective Edge" in 2014, rockets were fired at Ben-Gurion Airport and at Tel Aviv. So the consequences of such overt incursions may be a major escalation of the situation, which will affect the entire country and require the use of significant force.
When it comes to the use of force in the Gaza Strip there are no good alternatives. Almost all of them range from bad to worse. The choice of the method of targeted killings, for example, allows the IDF to operate mainly from the air, from afar, without endangering its personnel, and the achievement of killing a high-level terrorist may be positive. However, over time, new leaders have emerged, and more often than not they are more sophisticated and determined than their predecessors, as Israel learned after IAF attack helicopters killed Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi in 1992.
The use of standoff firepower, including deterrent fire by aircraft, snipers and artillery, or firing at buildings and launching rockets squads, has clear advantages and disadvantages. There is no risk to the IDF, but the enemy adapts, is less deterred, and there is a considerable risk of harming civilians. The use of standoff firepower, Tamir said at his lecture, is sometimes convenient for decision-makers because it allows the confrontation to remain "on a low flame."
But one has to know, he said, "when to change the rules of the game." On the other hand, there is a price to pay when one is changing the rules, and, above all, responsibility.
Anyone who thinks that an incursion into Gaza territory will deter Hamas and restrain it must take into account that though the IDF will harm many Hamas operatives and some civilians (since Hamas exploits the civilian population for its defense), a large number of casualties on the Palestinian side is a catalyst for continued escalation – not to mention the risk to Israeli soldiers during the fighting.
It is the responsibility of the government to ensure the security of its citizens who reside within the Gaza envelope. In view of the impasse that political negotiations have recently encountered – not because of Israel’s fault – it is good that there is real thinking about the use of force. At the IDF General Staff, where Maj.-Gen. Kochavi is today deputy to Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot (another ex-Golani Brigade officer, like Tamir and Ashkenazi), the implications of the use of force are clear, and therefore the recommendation to avoid them as long as possible.
It would be better for the government to understand the full implications of a decision on a limited and short-term ground raid, as well as other alternatives. There were already governments in Israel that approved an operation and found themselves at war. Such a raid, though it represents a resolute and determined policy, just as ministers Bennett and Liberman want to be seen, could lead to things which Israel has no interest in achieving, including another war in Gaza.
The writer is founder and operator of the blog "In the Crosshairs" on military, security, strategy vision and practice.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", October 13, 2018)