From an Israeli point of view, the military campaign in Gaza has been proceeding as expected, and even better than planned. The situation faced by Gaza residents has worsened, yet Hamas still believes that it can exact a heavy price from Israel in a manner that would enable it to claim that it wasn’t defeated.
In addition, at this time there is no Arab or international party that is able and willing to serve as mediator and bring about an agreement that would end the fighting. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are delaying an Arab summit that would formulate a way to help Hamas out of the mess, while the Security Council is frozen in the midst of the Christmas snows and end of the year.
For those reasons, the campaign is not expected to end in the coming days. As the defense minister and IDF deputy chief of staff said, the fighting could escalate and be expended.
The lethal Grad rocket attack on Ashkelon Monday morning and the stabbing attack in Kiryat Sefer are precisely what Hamas was hoping for. The organization’s leadership believes that its people and supporters in Gaza, the West Bank, and across the Arab world can still bring about a turnaround in the fighting that would enable them to end the confrontation from a position of strength. The dead and injured in Israel this morning, as well as demonstrations on the Arab street, serve as proof for Hamas that a change is possible.
Hamas’ hope is not baseless: Almost all parts of the organization’s military establishment sustained serious blows in recent days, yet Hamas is still able to produce a massive and lethal volume of rocket fire, and even dispatch terror cells to the Gaza fence. Meanwhile, Hamas’ leadership in Damascus is attempting to prompt its affiliates in the West Bank to carry out suicide bombings.
An analysis of the declarations made by Hamas spokesmen indicates that the group’s hope for a turnaround is based on two scenarios:
- Anticipation that Hamas and its partners in Gaza would be able to utilize the rockets that have not been hit by Israel in order to carry out a major assault, possibly in several waves. The objective would be to cause as many casualties and as much damage as possible, and just like Hizbullah did in the Second Lebanon War, prove that Israel’s devastating aerial assault did not paralyze or defeat the organization.
- A large-scale IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip. Such move, in Hamas’ estimate, would enable the group and its allies to exact a heavy price from the IDF via the landmines, explosive devices, ant-tank missiles, and tunnels prepared in the Strip, and also by resorting to suicide operations by members of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad, Popular Resistance Committees, and other armed factions.
Hizbullah encouragementThis Hamas doctrine, known in the Arab world as “tsumud” (persistence,) received some encouragement from Hizbullah leader Nasrallah, who provided the Gaza group with practical advice based on his wealth of experience. “Should Gaza stand firm for days or weeks, the aggression will stop,” he said. “The enemy cannot go on for long. Eventually it will be forced to end its aggression.”
Israeli officials are hoping that there would be no need for a massive ground incursion into the Strip or a long stay there. Yet the IDF has been preparing for it, by calling up reserve troops and deploying tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery batteries in the region. These moves are meant to make it clear to the other side that Israel is not about to end the operation soon, and also reserves the option of escalating it. This maneuver supposed to exert pressure on Hamas and its supporters.
Seemingly, at this point we could have considered a unilateral move: An Israeli declaration that we are willing to stop the fighting immediately should Hamas pledge to adhere to a stable long-term truce, stop its military buildup, and embark on serious and intensive talks on Gilad Shalit’s release. Such move, even if Hamas rejects it, as expected, may preserve the IDF’s achievements thus far and reduce the possibility of things going wrong, as happened in similar campaigns in Lebanon.
However, officials in Jerusalem and in the security establishment rejected the idea, arguing that it would give Hamas the feeling that Israel is scared to continue, thereby encouraging the group to present tough positions in negotiations. This would force Israel to renew the fighting under less convenient conditions. Another argument is that an Israeli proposal to hold the fire while Hamas continues to fire rockets and mortar shells would enable the group to present a Nasrallah-style “divine victory,” which would erode Israel’s deterrent power.
The bottom line is as follows: The campaign will continue, and in the process both sides are expected to pull painful “rabbits” out of their hat in order to reach agreement from a position of strength.