The IDF Spokesman confessed Wednesday morning: “We tried twice to eliminate the head of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammad Deif, during the fighting. He apparently has managed to escape.”
The army’s frustration is understandable. The strategic purpose of Operation Guardian of the Walls as articulated to the IDF by the political echelon was to boost deterrence against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which is the prerequisite for a return to stability, if not outright peace, along the Gaza Strip border.
The government did not instruct the army to overthrow the Hamas rule in Gaza, thus changing radically the situation there. Israel’s strategy since 2006 has been to pit the PA and Hamas against each other as a means of preventing the realization of the two-state solution. Ousting Hamas would play into the hands of the PLO, which would quickly fill the void in the strip, consolidate Gaza and Ramallah into a cohesive political entity and demand—with strong backing from the EU and the US, not to speak of Russia and China—a bona fide state.
And so the IDF’s political directive regarding boosting the deterrence in Gaza demanded exacting a high price from Hamas and reducing its capabilities, but not to the point where the terrorist organization would collapse.
Since the beginning of Operation Guardian of the Walls, Israel has eliminated more than a hundred—possibly 150—terrorists of varying ranks, including a few senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad figures. As the war is winding down—the first attempt at a ceasefire may come as early as Thursday—the IDF has attempted to eliminate seven key senior Hamas figures, but without success, although some of them have been wounded.
Deterrence, by definition, is not so much a military but a psychological concept. In this case, had the IDF been able to cut down Mohammed Deif, the chief of staff and supreme military commander of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, this would have delivered a blow that was similar to the elimination in January 2020 of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. You want deterrence? Kill Deif—it would make an impression.
Since 2014, Mohammed Deif has survived seven assassination attempts, two of them over the past week. By forcing him into deep hiding, the IDF may have denied him access to his troops, but eliminating him altogether would have made just the trophy that made this short war blatantly victorious.
Otherwise, the IDF is ready to call it quits. It has achieved most of its key goals – both in reaching much of its “targets bank” and at the same time defending against the most massive rocket attacks on Israel’s civilian population. From this point forward, barring the elimination of a very senior Hamas man, the IDF attacks would be more of the same. The spokesperson’s office’s morning reports read almost like a copy & paste of themselves: so many homes belonging to terrorist chiefs destroyed (while their owners are in hiding); another stretch of about ten miles of the “metro” underground tunnels system bombarded; and a list of rocket launching assets taken out, all from the air.
Those are substantial achievements, they definitely weaken the terrorists substantially, but they do not increase deterrence. Because deterrence is not a military but a psychological concept. Indeed, deterrence could be achieved in the coming years, should the IDF insist on bombing those assets every time they are rehabilitated. If each rocket manufacturing facility is blown up every time it is rebuilt – that would be deterrence. If the IAF, using both warplanes and armed drones, continues the nightly sorties to level every renewed attempt to establish the infrastructure of the metro tunnels – that would be deterrence. If the IDF is awakened from the slumber of always reacting to the terrorists’ provocations and seldom taking the initiative – that would be a deterrence.
But if Israel’s security apparatus relies on the terrorists’ bad memories from the punishment of this round of fighting for a future deterrence – it’s not happening.
Meanwhile, with the absence of a clear, dramatic victory, Israel is nearing with every passing day the possibility of the opposite taking place: either a Hamas freak success in hitting a very big Israeli asset, causing mass casualties, God forbid, or the IDF making a mistake and causing mass civilian casualties that would also be the last thing the world remembers about the war.
This entire no-win situation was caused by two different Israeli governments, ten years apart: the Rabin government that came up with the ludicrous Oslo accords, recognizing for the first time the legitimacy of a Palestinian State; and the Sharon government that evacuated not only 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip but also abandoned the IDF’s strategic control on the ground over Gaza’s main, north-to-south and east-to-west traffic arteries. This is why each time the IDF will try to take out the terrorist enemies on the ground—which is the only way to destroy their infrastructure for real—it will have to re-conquer the Strip anew, with the heavy cost in lives this would entail.
And so, as usual, the conclusion here is that not Hamas, nor the Islamic Jihad, nor Fatah are Israel’s biggest enemies. It’s Israel.