Israel’s Gaza Dilemma in the Aftermath of the War with Hizbullah

, July 3, 2007

Vol. 7, No. 8   July 3, 2007

  • If one sees one’s adversaries storing rockets and conducting a massive buildup of forces, the first thing one should expect is for them to use those forces. What we see in Gaza is similar to what we saw in Lebanon. Israel withdrew from Gaza over a year go, uprooting all the Israeli settlements, and since then Hamas and other terrorist organizations have been rapidly building up their forces.
  • Before the withdrawal, Hamas was receiving 3-4,000 guns annually through Egypt, and since the withdrawal they are getting 15-20,000 guns through Sinai into Gaza. Hamas has been able to draft thousands of young men and train them as terrorists, and to send dozens of commanders through Egypt to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon for training, and Egypt is not preventing this. There is also much more Iranian presence and Iranian aid in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal.
  • In a year or two, Hamas and other terrorist organizations will be able to shoot rockets not just at Sderot and Ashkelon as they do today, but as far as Ashdod and perhaps Beersheva, with strategic sites nearby. In three to four years, Hamas will have developed rockets which will threaten the Tel Aviv area.
  • There is general agreement that, sooner or later, Israel should do something in Gaza to prevent such a threat. Israel has two alternatives. One is to try to stop or jeopardize this process through air power, and to send in commando units to do quick operations as we did in Lebanon and as we have been doing in Gaza for the last year.
  • The other strategy is not to copy what we did last summer in Lebanon, but to copy what we did three years ago in Judea and Samaria, during Operation Defense Shield. This is a completely different military approach. Defensive Shield, ordered by the Sharon government in 2002, was about recapturing Palestinian territories for several weeks in order to gather intelligence, destroy the rocket factories, kill and capture terrorists, and deliver a heavy blow to the terrorist networks. The only reason there is no rocket industry and rocket threat from Judea and Samaria on Tel Aviv is due to Israel’s operation there.

 

The Outcome of the War in Lebanon

Essentially, Israel lost the war in Lebanon. From a purely military point of view Israel won the war because the enemy suffered many more casualties and much more damage to its military infrastructure. However, Israel lost the opportunity to eradicate this Iranian proxy that is threatening the north of Israel.

That there was no decisive victory over Hizbullah, especially after they fired so many rockets deep into Israeli territory, means losing the war. Israel should have put an end to Hizbullah’s military presence in Lebanon. Since this did not happen, it is considered an Israeli failure. Israel failed to defend its people for one month as two million Israelis were in shelters, and it failed to put an end to this threat from the north.

By the beginning of 2004, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee had realized that the IDF and the defense establishment did not understand the real essence of the Hizbullah threat and how to deal with it. They were putting too heavy a reliance on the air force. Israel had no chance, despite its excellent air capabilities, to properly defend the country with an air campaign alone.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from Lebanon with regard to Gaza. The most obvious one is that Chekov was right, that if you see a gun on the table in the first scene of a play, it is highly probable that it will be fired in the last scene. This is what happened in Lebanon. The guns and the rockets were seen coming from Iran via Syria into southern Lebanon month after month for six years after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Some deluded themselves into thinking that they would never dare shoot as far as Haifa. If one sees one’s adversaries storing rockets and conducting a massive buildup of forces, the first thing one should expect is for them to use those forces.

 

The Palestinian Military Buildup After Israel’s Withdrawal from Gaza

Even though many mistakes were made around the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, from a strategic point of view, it is better for Israel not to be in Gaza and not to have Israeli settlements inside Gaza, despite the difficult situation around Gaza following the disengagement.

What we see happening in Gaza is similar to what we saw in Lebanon. After the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon six years ago, Hizbullah began building up its forces, with massive help from Iran. The same thing is now occurring in Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza over a year go, uprooting all the Israeli settlements, and since then Hamas and other terrorist organizations have been rapidly building up their forces. Before the withdrawal, Hamas was receiving 3-4,000 guns annually through Egypt, and since the withdrawal they are getting 15-20,000 guns through the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. If before they were able to smuggle in only short-range RPG rockets, now they are getting longer range and more modern anti-tank rockets. They now have anti-aircraft missiles in Gaza. Even more significant, Hamas has been able to draft thousands of young men and train them as terrorists, and to send dozens of commanders through Egypt to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon for training, and Egypt is not preventing this. They return to Gaza in order to train others. There is also much more Iranian presence and Iranian aid in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal.

In addition, there is the border factor. While Jordan is preventing any military assistance from Iran, Syria, or Hizbullah crossing its borders into the West Bank, Egypt has failed to prevent the smuggling of very significant quantities of arms and explosives into Gaza. Jordan is cooperating in the war against terrorism, while Egypt is enabling terrorists to move through its territory.

In a year or two, Hamas and other terrorist organizations will be able to shoot rockets not just at Sderot and Ashkelon as they do today, but as far as Ashdod and perhaps Beersheva, with strategic sites nearby. In three to four years, Hamas will have developed rockets which will threaten the Tel Aviv area.

All of Israel’s security forces agree that if this kind of force buildup continues for several years, then Israel will face a very similar threat in the south as it did in the summer of 2006 from the north. Therefore, there is also general agreement that, sooner or later, Israel should do something in Gaza to prevent such a threat. Today there is a constant terrorist threat on the people of Sderot and Ashkelon and all the kibbutzim in the area, but if missiles are fired on Ashdod and Beersheva, and especially Tel Aviv, this might become a strategic threat to the State of Israel, including a threat to many important military and strategic compounds.

 

How to Stop the Growing Strategic Threat from Gaza

Israel has two alternatives. One is to try to stop or jeopardize this process through air power, and to send in commando units to do quick operations as we did in Lebanon and as we have been doing in Gaza for the last year.

The other strategy is not to copy what we did last summer in Lebanon, but to copy what we did three years ago in Judea and Samaria, during Operation Defense Shield. This is a completely different military approach. Defensive Shield, ordered by the Sharon government in 2002, was about recapturing Palestinian territories for several weeks in order to gather intelligence, destroy the rocket factories, kill and capture terrorists, and deliver a heavy blow to the terrorist networks.

The only chance of stopping the force buildup by Hamas and other organizations in Gaza is to go back to the strategy of Operation Defensive Shield and not to the failing strategy of the war in Lebanon last summer. This means to recapture Gaza, which will be complicated from a military point of view, but sooner or later Israel will have no choice.

This will not end terrorism from Gaza, nor will it destroy Hamas and the other terrorist organizations. They also still exist in Nablus and in Ramallah after Defensive Shield. However, the only reason that there is no rocket industry and rocket threat from Judea and Samaria is that Israel’s operation dealt a heavy blow to the terrorist networks and infrastructure, so that five years later, Hamas and the PLO do not have the ability to produce rockets, although they are able to send some suicide bombers and to establish some cells in Judea and Samaria.

When should Israel implement an Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza? Should Israel wait for a disaster and then the world will justify its countermeasures, or should it prevent such a disaster from the beginning? It is immoral to wait for a terrible disaster that would come from Gaza through another suicide bomber or another Kassam rocket that could hit a school bus or a school in Sderot. Israel has restrained itself for so long that the world expects it to continue, and this is totally unjustified.

Israel should have carried out such an operation in Gaza before the disengagement. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the Palestinian attitude, which no one predicts, it is clear that such an operation is forthcoming. From a military point of view, it is clear what the threats from Gaza will be if Israel does nothing more than what it has done up to now.

 

No Palestinian Partner

The Islamists are completing their control of the Palestinian arena. A year ago they took power in the Palestinian Authority, as a result of elections where they gained a majority in the parliament and formed the government. Hamas is in close alliance with Iran, and former PA Prime Minister Haniyeh made it very clear during his last visit to Tehran that Hamas has a strategic alliance with the Iranian regime.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which violates the initial Oslo agreement that was based on mutual recognition of two states for two peoples. This was the logic of Oslo: an Arab Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, and Israel as the Jewish state for the Jewish people.

Thirteen years after Oslo, it is time to tell the truth, and the truth is there is no Palestinian partner. Abbas is not a reliable partner. He has been in office for two years and promised that there would be one Palestinian Authority with one security force, and no militias or terrorist organizations. But he has done nothing to achieve this goal.

As a result, there is not much difference between him and Arafat. It took Israel many years to admit that Arafat, the man who signed a peace treaty in Oslo, was not a partner, and that his regime supported terrorism. Israel should not wait another ten years to come to the conclusion that Abbas is no different. Whether he is unwilling or incapable is irrelevant because he is not a reliable partner for peace.

Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank is still proving very effective because it has been maintained. It is easier for Israel to erase terrorist rocket factories in the West Bank than in Gaza. Hizbullah fired 4,000 rockets into Israel and no one in the international community said that it was illegal for Israel to go into Lebanon to stop the shooting and to destroy the rockets and the terrorists behind the rockets. If the Palestinians in Gaza enable terrorists to fire rockets into Israel, Israel will have the full right and duty to react.

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Dr. Yuval Steinitz is former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1999. Dr. Steinitz has written extensively on Israeli and Arab strategic affairs and has focused attention on the rapid modernization of the Egyptian army. A philosopher by training, he taught at Haifa University and is the author of four books on philosophy. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on February 8, 2007.

Dr. Yuval Steinitz

Dr. Yuval Steinitz is Israel’s Minister of Energy and a member of the Security Cabinet. First elected to the Knesset in 1999, Dr. Steinitz has written extensively on Israeli and Arab strategic affairs and has focused attention on the rapid modernization of the Egyptian army. A philosopher by training, he taught at Haifa University and is the author of four books on philosophy.