Another Costly Draw

Israel Defense Force (IDF) ground units completed their withdrawal from Gaza on Tuesday, August 5. At first, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that this was part of a strategic Israeli decision to deal unilaterally with Hamas. Then Israel agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire, supposedly without committing to talks. Now Israel will enter Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas, in contradiction to Netanyahu’s earlier pledge that there would be “no accommodation, only deterrence.”

One thing is very clear at this point: Israel did not seek or win a military victory over Hamas, no matter what Netanyahu says, nor are most Israelis buying that claim. For its part, Hamas claimed victory too. At best Israel achieved yet another draw with Hamas, though at much higher cost than in previous campaigns. Yes, Hamas suffered disproportionately. But its leadership remains intact, as do much of its rocket and artillery forces, and almost certainly some undiscovered terror tunnels. For Hamas, such a result is not a defeat.

Yet a military victory was within Israel’s grasp. The Israeli retreat began on August 3, shortly after the IDF determined that Lieutenant Hardar Goldin, feared kidnapped by Hamas, was in fact dead.  Hamas terrorists attempted to abduct Goldin on August 1, shortly after another ceasefire went into effect in Gaza. 

For about a day, the IDF believed Goldin kidnapped, and apparently instituted the so-called Hannibal Protocol. That protocol calls for vigorous offensive action, in order to interdict the kidnappers and either effect a rescue, or deny Hamas a prize by killing the terrorists, and perhaps in the process, the soldier too. For about 24 hours the IDF actually started to move out of its lagers and began to maneuver. And for the first time in this latest Gaza war, Hamas seems to have become unnerved. 

In the immediate aftermath of the attempted kidnapping, it’s likely that the Hamas command was as much in the dark as the IDF.  However, sometime before the IDF, it clearly determined that its terrorists had not succeeded in seizing an Israeli soldier. This put Hamas in a difficult and dangerous position. Hamas’ leadership was clearly willing to risk an IDF ground offensive if it had an Israeli soldier in its hands. But as the IDF geared up and began to move off in the aftermath of the attack, Hamas faced the possibility of a violent and sustained Israeli ground attack, without a bargaining chip. At this point, for the first time in during Operation Protective Edge, it flinched. 

The flinch was subtle. It involved Hamas spokesmen falling over themselves to quickly deny that its kidnappers got Lieutenant Goldin, to blame Israel for the violation of the ceasefire, and to join ceasefire negotiations in Cairo, which Hamas had previously refused.

It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t victory, but evidently it was enough to convince Netanyahu and the IDF high command that Israel had accomplished its ground combat mission. Less charitably, it also allowed the IDF to skedaddle before Hamas could actually get its hands on an Israeli soldier. Although Netanyahu is at pains to depict the operation in Gaza a success, Israel’s hasty withdrawal on the “good news” that Goldin was not a Hamas captive, but instead blown to bits, is hardly glorious. It was sharply criticized by members of Netanyahu’s own government, and has left Israeli residents of communities near Gaza uneasy and in many cases frightened to return home.

This is perhaps a harsh judgment, but it is the way Hamas and most Palestinian Arabs will see it, and that undermines Israeli deterrence, which was the supposed goal of the operation.

In an earlier piece for AT, written at the start of the fighting, I urged that Israel not repeat the mistakes of the 2006 Lebanon campaign. However, it seems the IDF and Israel’s political echelons see the Lebanon campaign as a model to be imitated, rather than an example to be avoided. Israel made many tactical and operational mistakes during the 2006 Lebanon campaign, so much so that the government appointed a commission (Winograd) to investigate the war’s conduct and outcome. But the IDF has not changed its doctrinal approach, which abjures seeking a decisive victory on the battlefield. 

The IDF also seems hesitant to maneuver its ground forcesand still prefers to fight a static battle dominated by standoff air and artillery fires, even though the Winograd Commission specifically criticized the IDF for this in Lebanon, and it failed to deter Hamas in two previous operations (Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense.)

With Hamas’ flinch, Israel almost simultaneously began its withdrawal, content with another draw, rationalizing that Hamas finally “got the message” or some such thing. Whether this determination was due to a loss of nerve by Netanyahu, foreign (and especially American) pressure or Israeli generals who are less aggressive and decisive than those of previous generations, is unclear -- perhaps all three.

Oft repeated analysis of this latest Gaza war maintains that 1) Israel cannot and doesn’t want to reoccupy Gaza, and 2) that were Israel to defeat Hamas a more violent and radical Islamic organization would replace it.  However, this is not a military analysis. It is a political analysis that seeks to waylay military options. 

A simple military analysis: Gaza is a big city. Big cities can be taken, albeit at significant costs to the attacker and civilian populations. The IDF could seize Gaza at moderate (if painful cost to both the IDF and Gaza civilians) in less time than it spent fighting the current campaign, and probably at no greater overall cost than this continuing war of attrition is producing.

Israel suffered 64 military dead (plus three civilian deaths) in an essentially static and indecisive conflict. Had Israel pressed a ground attack in Gaza, Arab civilian casualties would have been high, but Hamas losses would have been catastrophic, which is exactly why Hamas scrambled to stave off an actual Israeli offensive. Before Israel’s withdrawal, polls showed that only about 7% of Israeli Jews were in favor of limiting the IDF’s operations due to military or civilian casualties. There was almost no domestic Israeli pressure for an IDF withdrawal.

If an army has the option of maneuver, which the IDF surely did, against an essentially static foe, not to use it is asking for a stalemate at best, a defeat at worst. The IDF can maneuver and chooses not to. 

Hamas can’t really maneuver and yet did. It doesn’t have tanks, armored personnel carriers, or helicopters, but it does have tunnels. It used them. Even though most of its tunnel attacks failed, its few successes paid disproportionate dividends, and its tunnel actions helped keep the IDF off balance.

Another example: Hamas’ mortar attacks into Israel proper against military targets, unlike its indiscriminate rocket bombardments against Israeli cities, saw successes. About a dozen IDF soldiers were killed in such attacks (20% of total IDF fatalities.)  Again, this is largely the result of the refusal of the IDF to maneuver and put Hamas gunners (who often fire from camouflaged underground positions -- watch this video) under tactical pressure. Static IDF troop concentrations are easy targets. 

Although former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was widely chastised for his 2005 complaint that Israel is tired of fighting and winning, it is hard to conclude, at least when it comes to the present Israeli leadership, that he was wrong. In Gaza, besides belatedly deciding to destroy tunnels, the prime Israeli objective was to “message” the enemy, e.g., “quiet for quiet.” The problem with this is that Hamas is not a traditional military enemy or even a typical asymmetrical actor. Like Hizb’allah and other modern Islamist organizations, it is a formidable hybrid.  Hamas pursues combat for its own sake. Thus, getting Hamas to stop fighting is tantamount to getting Hamas to surrender. And to get Hamas to surrender you have to defeat it. 

None of this means that the IDF had to reoccupy Gaza.  It could have penetrated Gaza, decimated Hamas and its leadership and then, having won, withdrawn. Maybe something worse would replace Hamas, but it’s awfully hard to imagine something worse than Hamas. Nor is there any rule that the victor of a military conflict has to occupy territory and/or rehabilitate its foe. That is an American thing -- the rehab at least -- which has recently not worked out well for us.  Israel need not imitate it.

Israel only has difficult choices when it comes to Gaza. Destroying Hamas might not be the ultimate answer, but the IDF can do it, and should do it. Otherwise, this story will repeat again and again.