The current fighting between Israel and Hamas may have been ignited by the kidnap/murder of three young Israelis and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager. Yet the ensuing drama over the abortive Egyptian-inspired cease-fire suggests that there was much more involved. And the great disparity in the damage each side has been able to inflict on the other indicates that Israel has perhaps figured out how, in pursuing its goals, to maximize its advantage as a modern military power while avoiding a direct and costly confrontation with Hamas on Hamas’s home turf.
Hamas, openly advocating the destruction of Israel, has long chafed under the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. To be sure, underground tunnels permitted a substantial flow of goods, yet the restrictions have been such as to seriously dampen the Gazan economy. Lately, this has been all the more pronounced given the post-Morsi Egyptian government’s destruction of most of the tunnels and its closing of the Egypt-Gaza border. And Israel’s incarceration of relatively large numbers of Hamas members involved in terrorism has been a constant source of embarrassment and a continuing threat to Hamas’s rule.
Further, Hamas has recently been suffering from unprecedented weakness. Heretofore it was allied with Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran and could count on them, especially Iran and Syria, for replenishment of their rocket arsenal – the main weapon Hamas has in its attempts to challenge Israel. Yet Hamas has broken with Iran over Syria and plainly has to be concerned about maintaining its missile inventory.
So Hamas needed a way to end the blockade and secure the release of its prisoners. It had to create a crisis with Israel that would lead to negotiations with, and concessions from, Israel. And the only vehicle to bring this about was to shower Israeli cities with the rockets Hamas had in great abundance. This is not to say Hamas didn’t expect to pay a heavy price in civilian and infrastructure damage wrought by the IDF. But it was doubtless also counting on goading Israel into a ground invasion that would be ultimately indecisive, result in IDF casualties, and lead to a negotiated cease-fire – with each side having to make concessions.
It is revealing that the principal reasons given by Hamas leaders for rejecting the Egyptian cease-fire proposal was that it did not guarantee an end to the Gaza blockade or call for the release of Hamas prisoners held by Israel. Of course, Hamas never counted on the extraordinary success of the Iron Dome system that largely neutralized the rocket attacks and thus removed from the equation Hamas’s only real source of leverage.
On the other hand, for Israel the stakes were also quite high. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s invitation to Hamas to join his government accorded legitimacy to an organization seen as a terrorist outfit by much of the civilized world. It also meant that a possible Hamas takeover of the PA was a new reality that complicated an already difficult situation.
As Prime Minister Netanyahu said last week,
We need to understand one fact: We are living in a Middle East that is being taken over by radical Islam, leading to the collapse of a number of countries and [these Islamists] knocking on our doors both in the North and the South. I say we cannot allow a situation where we get Gaza in Judea and Samaria.… Today I think that Israel’s citizens understand why I say all the time that there cannot be a situation in any agreement that we will give up security control from the Jordan River westward. I don’t want to create another 20 Gazas in Judea and Samaria.
And Mr. Netanyahu explained his reasons for accepting a cease-fire with Hamas:
We agreed to the Egyptian proposal in order to give the opportunity to deal with demilitarization of the strip from missiles, rockets and tunnels through diplomatic means. But if Hamas does not accept the cease-fire proposal, as it looks now, Israel will have all the international legitimacy in order to achieve the desired quiet.
Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent reluctance to send ground troops into Gaza should not necessarily be taken as a sign that he is willing to accept a continuing threat to Israelis to fester there. The punishing air attacks have created a significant deterrence factor given the current inability of Hamas to materially pierce the Iron Dome veil. Deploying the IDF to Gaza, however, would put Israelis at risk and provide Hamas the leverage the Iron Dome has denied them.
And while current Iron Dome technology may not be as effective the next time around, there will be constant research and development to keep it at a cutting-edge level. The lesson of Operation Protective Edge is that Israel’s playing to its own strengths can work – and save a lot of lives in the process.