For several months now, IDF and defense officials have been discussing with great concern the prospect of a "strategic Qassam" – a rocket that will be launched today, tomorrow, or in two months, land in a southern community, kill people, and force the government and IDF, as a result of public pressure, to embark on a large-scale Gaza operation.
The strategic Qassam won't necessarily be different in its technological character and destructive capability than the hundreds that have already landed in the Negev in the past year. It will become "strategic" because it will leave the government with no choice but to launch a major operation that would necessitate calling up the reserves and lead to casualties among our soldiers. Such an operation would also require us to put the entire military on high alert for fear of response in the north, while Israel is forced to go on the defensive and explain its actions to the international community.
Therefore, it is small wonder that officials in the defense establishment and Prime Minister's Office are praying, literally, that the "strategic Qassam" won't land in the Negev in the coming two or three months, and at least not during the holidays and not before the peace summit to be convened by President Bush in November.
A major Gaza operation will torpedo the international conference because even Mahmoud Abbas and the moderate Arab states will be forced to express their support for the Gaza-based Hamas, and may even choose not to show up. Meanwhile, Israel would be blamed for torpedoing the summit.
Therefore, we can assume that the Qassam that landed overnight at the new recruits' base in Zikim will not be characterized by the political leadership as "strategic". One reason for this is that if the IDF embarks on a large-scale operation in the Strip in response to an attack on soldiers, Israeli public opinion will be outraged. The media and Negev residents will slam the government and top defense officials, arguing that the blood of soldiers is apparently worth more than the blood and tears of Sderot children who have been sustaining Qassam hits every day and facing constant anxiety.
We can therefore assume that at this time, the government will prefer to focus on "exacting a price tag," rather than a major military operation.
We're talking about the simultaneous activation of diverse levers, both military and economic. This would include direct pressure on rocket launchers and their masters, as well as indirect pressure on Strip residents aimed at forcing them to press the gunmen to curb or at least minimize their actions against Israel.
This operational notion is not new. It has been utilized several times in the past, but the results were unimpressive, with one exception - in 2005, when the targeted assassination offensive against Hamas leaders in Gaza prompted the group to declare a temporary ceasefire (however, Hamas also had an interest in avoiding disruptions to the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip.) Despite this, Olmert, Barak and Ashkenazi think that it is worthwhile to try this alternative before "going for broke" via a wide-scale operation.
We can assume that emphasis will be given to military means, rather than civilian-economic levers. The military components of the "price tag plan" formulated by the defense establishment include the following:
- A "targeted assassinations offensive" against the initiators and executors of terror attacks and Qassam launchings in the Strip, while avoiding a distinction between political or military echelon members and between a foot-soldier and a commander. Anyone who can be hit from the air and ground will be hit.
- Boosting the number and range of ground incursions into the Gaza Strip, mostly for the purpose of gathering intelligence information and destroying Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's military infrastructure – including ambushes of Qassam cells. These incursions will be carried out (and are already being carried out) mostly by Special Forces units.
- Boosting joint operations involving the Air Force and ground forces in order to detect and thwart Qassam attacks and hit cells before and after they fire.
- Firing back at launching sites, either from the air or through artillery, without a concrete target.
The intention is to utilize all these channels at the same time, while they feed off and back up each other. IDF officials hope that this will not only greatly minimize the rocket attacks, but also force launching cells to operate hastily and from more distant ranges, thus proving less effective. The problem is that such operations are carried out in the midst of a civilian population not involved in the fighting, which could lead to various kinds of entanglements.
There are also military means that have a "civilian effect" – the IDF hesitates to use them but still considers them seriously. For example, disrupting traffic in the Strip to the point of complete paralysis through air raids on highways and dirt roads. Deep pits at certain junctions will achieve this effect and force Qassam launchers to reach launching sites on foot while carrying their heavy loads.
However, the non-combative population will also suffer greatly. This will be a sort of substitute to the roadblocks deployed by the IDF in the West Bank. Such move could also be used to divide the Strip into seperate areas and make movement between them more difficult. The Palestinians will of course attempt to fill up the pits and repair the roads, yet this can be prevented relatively easily, and we can create new pits if needed.
The civilian-economic levers are also aimed at, in addition to exerting indirect pressure on gunmen through the population, weakening Hamas politically and boosting Abbas. The means available are well known: Cutting off the electricity supply, minimizing the fuel supply to the Strip, and preventing non-essential goods from entering Gaza. Another possibility being looked into is preventing Gaza fishermen from going out to sea.
The IDF does not recommend undermining the Strip's water supply for humanitarian reasons, and for fear of harsh international reactions. Meanwhile, the legal aspects of such moves are being examined in terms of international law. The utilization of economic pressure constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population, which is forbidden by international law. In severe cases it may even be defined as a "war crime."
Another problem discussed by defense officials is the fact that exerting economic pressure on Strip residents prompts them to seek help from Hamas' welfare apparatus, which has plenty of Iranian money at its disposal. Thus, such pressure actually makes Hamas stronger instead of weakening it.
To begin with, we must not pin too many hopes on such moves, because Gaza's civilian population's ability to influence the conduct of armed groups is very limited.
The plans for exacting a price tag have a chance only if all military and civilian levers are deployed simultaneously, to the maximum extent possible, but without causing humanitarian disasters.
Senior defense officials realize that eventually Israel will be forced to launch a wide-scale operation in Gaza – not only because of the Qassams, but mostly in order to prevent Hamastan from turning into a Hizbullah-style fortified and well-equipped stronghold. The government and IDF are merely waiting for more convenient timing.