An article of George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, with some quick commentaries of the translator, Gianni Pardo.
The current confrontation in Gaza began July 12 after three Israeli teenagers disappeared in the West Bank the month before. Israel announced the disappearance June 13, shortly thereafter placing blame on Hamas for the kidnappings. On June 14, Hamas fired three rockets into the Hof Ashkelon region. This was followed by Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Jerusalem region. On July 8, the Israelis announced Operation Protective Edge and began calling up reservists. Hamas launched a longer-range rocket at Tel Aviv. Israel then increased its airstrikes against targets in Gaza.
At this point, it would appear that Israel has deployed sufficient force to be ready to conduct an incursion into Gaza. However, Israel has not done so yet. The conflict has consisted of airstrikes and some special operations forces raids by Israel and rocket launches by Hamas against targets in Israel.
From a purely military standpoint, the issue has been Hamas’s search for a deterrent to Israeli operations against Gaza. Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 disrupted Gaza deeply, and Hamas found itself without any options beyond attempts to impose high casualties on Israeli forces. But the size of the casualties in Cast Lead did not prove a deterrent.
Hamas augmented its short-range rocket arsenal with much longer-range rockets. The latest generation of rockets it has acquired can reach the population center of Israel: the triangle of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. However, these are rockets, not missiles. That means they have no guidance system, and their point of impact once launched is a matter of chance. Given these limits, Hamas hoped having a large number of rockets of different ranges would create the risk of substantial Israeli civilian casualties, and that that risk would deter Israel from action against Gaza.
The threat posed by the rockets was in fact substantial. According to senior Israeli Air Force officers quoted on the subject, Israel lacked intelligence on precisely where the rockets were stored and all the sites from which they might be launched. Gaza is honeycombed with a complex of tunnels, many quite deep. This limits intelligence. It also limits the ability of Israeli airborne munitions from penetrating to their storage area and destroying them.
The Israeli objective is to destroy Hamas’ rocket capacity. Israel ideally would like to do this from the air, but while some can be destroyed from the air, and from special operations, it appears the Israelis lack the ability to eliminate the threat. The only solution would be a large-scale assault on Gaza designed to occupy it such that a full-scale search for the weapons and their destruction on the ground would be possible.
Hamas has been firing rockets to convince the Israelis that they have enough to increase casualties in the triangle if they choose to. The Israelis must in fact assume that an assault on Gaza would in its earliest stages result in a massive barrage, especially since Hamas would be in a “use-it-or-lose-it” position. Hamas hopes this will deter an Israeli attack.
Thus far, Israel has restrained its attack beyond airstrikes. The extent to which the fear of massed rocketry was the constraining factor is not clear. Certainly, the Israelis are concerned that Hamas is better prepared for an attack than it was during Cast Lead, and that its ability to use anti-tank missiles against Israel’s Merkava tanks and improvised explosive devices against infantry has evolved. Moreover, the occupation of Gaza would be costly and complex. It would take perhaps weeks to search for rockets and in that time, Israeli casualties would mount. When the political consequences, particularly in Europe, of such an attack were added to this calculus, the ground component of Protective Edge was put off.
Just at this stage some conclusions may be drawn. It is impossible to destroy all the rockets, or most of them, via air attacks. A ground attack would involve soldiers casualties and maybe also some tank loss, if meanwhile the Palestinians have got enough powerful rockets to destroy the Merkava. Besides, once that the Israelis had done all this, with its high price to pay, in the end they should withdraw, and the story could restart for another round.
From the purely military point of view, in my eyes air attacks or a massive ground attack are no adequate response. What would solve the problem would simply be to adopt the Palestinian method. Tit for tat. As we say in Italy, to a bandit, a bandit and half. They fire rockets? The Israelis should fire three times as much rockets towards the center of Gaza. Not missiles, just rockets, thinking that, while the Israelis have Iron Dome to protects themselves, Hamas could just open an umbrella. So the casualties would be impressive on the Palestinian side, and they would in fact taste how pleasant it is to live constantly under the risk of being killed by a blind rocket. And this time it would be the population that would suffer most. Either in the end it would rebel against Hamas, or Hamas would understand that it is losing the population support. In fact, as long as the Palestinians don’t dispose of anything similar to Iron Dome, they would not be capable of opposing any convincing answer to this kind of retaliation.
Of course the world would proclaim its indignation, but it proclaims its indignation anyway. And in fact in this matter the mistake that created this problem was that Jerusalem did not respond with rockets the very first time. The attackers would have stopped then, and the world would have realized that the answer was exactly in line with the question. On the contrary with its moderation, and attention for the Palestinian population, Jerusalem has bought a problem she cannot solve. Maybe.
As mentioned, a major issue for the Israelis is the intelligence factor. It is said that Iran provided Hamas with these rockets via smuggling routes through Sudan. It is hard to imagine the route these weapons would take such that Israeli (and American) intelligence would not detect them on their thousand-plus mile transit, and that they would move into Gaza in spite of Israeli and Egyptian hostile watchfulness. Even if Iran didn’t provide the weapons, and someone else did, the same question would arise.
The failure of the Israelis to detect and interdict the movement of rockets or rocket parts has an immediate effect on the confidence with which senior Israeli commanders and political leaders calculate their course. Therefore, to this point, there has been a stalemate, with what we assume is a small fraction of Hamas’ rockets being fired, and limited operations against Gaza. The ground operation is being held in check for now. One should not forget that not long ago Egypt was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and there can be little hope that the Brothers were “watchful”. It could simply be that there was tolerance during a while, and that now Hamas is taking advantage of its stock. But the fact that in the last days the terrorists have largely diminished the number of rockets fired, proves that they have no further supply and that they are trying to make them last for some more time. Anyhow, this argument supports the idea that the irresistible response is tit for tat, rockets for rockets. Adding: “Hopefully you don’t expect that we lend you our Iron Dome to defend your population. You have not restrained from having recourse to terrorism, there is no reason why we should not take advantage of our technology”.
It is interesting that there have been few public attempts to mediate between Hamas and Israel, and that the condemnation of violence and calls for peace have been more perfunctory than usual. Last week, reports emerged of Turkish and Qatari attempts to negotiate a solution. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also reportedly contacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, offering assistance in mediating a truce. Meanwhile, high-ranking diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany discussed truce efforts on the sidelines of talks on Iran. These efforts may explain Israeli reluctance to attack, or provide a justification for not carrying out an attack that Israel might see as too risky. It is more likely that the Israelis need a justification for not carrying a ground attack than they wait for a “negotiated solution”. Hamas and the Palestinians don’t wish to live in peace, they dream of the international community being able of putting such a pressure on Israel, and it stops defending itself, while they go on firing rockets on its towns. This can please them but it can hardly please Jerusalem. Negotiations with the Palestinians are useless. This is a statement based more on history, than on common sense.
The problem for Israel in any cease-fire is that it would keep the current status quo in place. Hamas would retain its rockets, and might be able to attain more advanced models. Israel was not able to stop the influx of this load, so Israel can’t be confident that it can stop the next. A cease-fire is a victory for Hamas because they have retained their rocket force and have the potential to increase it. Exactly what I said. But for Israel, if it assumes that it cannot absorb the cost of rooting out all of the rockets (assuming that is possible) then a cease-fire brings it some political benefits without having to take too many risks.
At this moment, we know for certain that Israel is bombing Gaza and has amassed a force sufficient to initiate ground operations but has not done so. Hamas has not fired a saturation attack, assuming it could, but has forced Israel to assume that such an attack is possible, and that its Iron Dome defensive system would be overwhelmed by the numbers. The next move is Israel’s. We can assume there are those in the Israeli command authority arguing that the Gaza rockets will be fired at some point, and must be eliminated now, and others arguing that without better intelligence the likelihood of casualties and of triggering a saturation launch is too high.
We have no idea who will win the argument, if there is one, but right now, Israel is holding. Well, a person like George Friedman, that I deem among the most intelligent commentators in the world, says “if there is one”. Maybe mine is a pretty daring proposal, and a tough one, but no one can deny that it would not work. And in addition I wonder if one day, if the worst hypotheses came true, the Israelis will not be obliged to follow my line. Unless they accept to be the target for the artillery and rocketry course of the Hamas military.
“Gaza Situation Report is republished with permission of Stratfor.”