Assuming that the term “Pillar of Cloud” wasn’t selected at random by an IDF computer (which does in fact happen sometimes), we have a problem. I have to hope that the name refers not to a strictly aerial operation, but to aerial bombardment preceding the entry of infantry and armored forces on the ground in Gaza, just as the pillar of cloud and fire preceded the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
If indeed the latter is the true meaning of Operation Pillar of Cloud (the Hebrew name for Operation Pillar of Defense), then it is going to run into opposition from Amram Mitzna and other high-ranking leftist officers, who already this week came out against a ground invasion to put an end to the terrorism. They claim that the right tool for the job is aerial bombardment—and even that, only so long as it is restrained and limited to very specific targets, as in the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari this week.
These are the same people who came out against a ground invasion during the Second Lebanon War, thus ruining that campaign. Eliminating Hizballah as a military force simply wasn’t on their agenda, and whatever goals they did set were not formulated with any clarity.
The left’s argument is that it is necessary to contain the conflict in order to allow a peaceful resolution, to try to lower the flames and apply low-intensity conflict doctrine.
And what about the ongoing terrorist activity?
One of the leading proponents of this approach, a very senior commander who used to be identified with the right, recently told me that because it is possible today to the dirty work precisely and aerially, there is no need for Israeli control of Judea and Samaria. The Mossad, he said, has managed to eliminate targets even in distant countries—obviously it can do the same thing in our backyard when necessary. So, he concluded, there is no problem with establishing a Palestinian state.
The sort of operations you’re describing, I said, are special ops that require significant preparations and investments, not a general military solution for eliminating whole battalions and divisions of terrorists.
He maintained that it is sufficient to eliminate the heads and leave the armies.
Just, and Pragmatic to Boot
Whether we like it or not, the Arabs aren’t stupid. There are enough of them who are capable of staying in bunkers for extended periods, such as Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who barely leaves his hiding place but manages to run operations against Israel from there.
There have been aerial attacks on specific targets in Gaza in the past, notably the one that eliminated Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yet simply eliminating terrorist commanders isn’t enough. Every time one senior terrorist is eliminated, he is succeeded by another. So operations to take out the terrorists are important, but they have to be carried out generally, not specifically. This not only serves to mete out justice to the murderers, but also is very much a practical necessity, because even with the head of the snake gone, the body keeps killing.
So how is it possible to identify every team of terrorists that sets out to strand a million Israelis in bomb shelters, or to identify all the little rocket launchers in Gaza, without having forces on the ground?
For that matter, without effective control of the territory, how is it possible to gather comprehensive intelligence on the entire hierarchy of murderers in a terrorist organization?
Anyone who aims to make do with targeted attacks, containment, and low-intensity conflict until peace is brought about by negotiations with the terrorists ought to keep in mind that we tried that in Judea and Samaria prior to Operation Defensive Shield, practicing restraint and waiting for a whole year while an unprecedented wave of terrorism engulfed the country.
This brings us to comments made by Colonel Moshe Hagar. Hagar is not only a senior combat officer who worked on Defensive Shield, but also a great Torah scholar, head of the pre-military academy system, scion of a Chassidic dynasty, whose sharpness comes courtesy of the Torah and of his father Yehoshua, who died this year after finishing a book on the halachot(laws) of war and the redemption of captives.
Hagar argues that Defensive Shield must be brought to Gaza. He acknowledges, though, that it will be messier and take much longer than in Judea and Samaria. The delay in acting and the “Disengagement” have given Hamas two decades to build up forces that are more numerous and better equipped than those the IDF fought during Defensive Shield.
Even that was not easy, and the results were not immediate. It took two years for the IDF to eliminate or arrest the terrorists, confiscate their weapons, and rehabilitate the intelligence infrastructure that had been destroyed when we gave the Palestinians overall security responsibility for the area in the Oslo Accords.
Hagar’s assessment is shared by Treasury Minister Yuval Steinitz. Even with his familiarity with the difficulties, earned during his tenure as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, he has long argued for a long-term ground operation in Gaza. The minister is a philosopher by training, and as such is not disinclined to voice an unpopular opinion. For years, since he was head of that committee, even before the revolution in Egypt, he has been arguing that it is necessary to put an end to the present situation on the southern front, including the border with Egypt and the Sinai Desert.
Lieutenant-General Yaakov Amidror, chairman of the National Security Council at the Prime Minister’s Office, says the same thing, but only off the record, due to his position.
Time is not working in our favor. The longer we wait, the higher the price we will pay. We need a ground operation, and now. We need to do what we did in Judea and Samaria. We need to take back control of Gaza once and for all.
Originally published in Makor Rishon, 16 November 2012. Translated from Hebrew by David B. Greenberg.