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Soldiers near Eilat Photo: Eliad Levy
Soldiers near Eilat Photo: Eliad Levy
 
Scene of Terror attack Photo: Defense Ministry
Scene of Terror attack Photo: Defense Ministry
 
'Operation South' was ready for approval Photo: Ben Kelmer
'Operation South' was ready for approval Photo: Ben Kelmer
 
Treating casualties Photo: Yossi Ben
Treating casualties Photo: Yossi Ben
 
 

On verge of Gaza war

Special: Israel was on verge of launching major Gaza operation, but Hamas blinked

Alex Fishman
Published: 08.26.11, 22:39 / Israel News

When Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrived at the Defense Ministry Headquarters’ meeting room last Saturday, a thick war book titled “Operation South” was already awaiting his approval on his desk. In those hours, Israel was on the verge of embarking on war in the Gaza Strip.

 

The book did not pertain to a limited operation. The selected targets would have certainly prompted a major flare-up, including difficult regional implications. Just like in Operation Cast Lead, the political leadership granted immunity to no one in the Strip, regardless of his position or stature.

 

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The detailed plans – the targets, scope, power and timing – would have left Hamas no breathing space and time to debate its response. It would have gone for the jackpot, right away. Indeed, Israel’s war plan included preparations for massive rocket fire from Gaza, including long-range missiles aimed at central Israel in general, and at Tel Aviv in particular.

 

Last weekend, the General Staff Headquarters looked like on the eve of war. Officials were working around the clock and sleeping in their offices. While formulating the plans, top officials recalled the curse of arrogance of the Second Lebanon War. Back then, the decision to launch a war was taken without sufficient preparation. The military and political leadership decided to deliver a blow, immediately, without taking into account the implications, the enemy’s response, the home front’s condition and the ability to counter rocket barrages. This time around, a full, detailed plan was drafted; it also included the IDF Home Front Command’s deployment. Only then was the scheme presented to the political echelon.

 

IDF strike in Gaza (Photo: AP)
IDF strike in Gaza (Photo: AP)

 

Another lesson learned from the miserable confrontation vis-à-vis Hezbollah is to start such assaults with great fire power, in order to minimize as much as is possible the home front’s suffering. This lesson was already implemented in Operation Cast Lead; in other words, the power utilized during Cast Lead was to constitute the starting point of the next operation.

 

Countdown begins  

Most of Israel’s regular army was to be enlisted, at one point or another, for the operation. Hence, last Saturday all regular army units were placed on alert. Air Force squadrons undertook their final preparations. The time given to the army for preparations also gave international parties – namely the United States and Egypt – time to examine alternatives to the war.

 

Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the terror offensive on the road leading to Eilat, officials started to formulate the operational doctrine. At that point, the targets were only Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC.) Hamas was not yet a clear target, with the exception of several symbolic hits meant to signal to the group that it holds the responsibility to prevent attacks from the Strip.

 

Iron Dome missile defense system (Photo: Avi Roccah)
Iron Dome missile defense system (Photo: Avi Roccah)

 

A short while after the PRC’s top brass was eliminated by the IDF in a surgical strike, Hamas’ entire leadership, both military and political, disappeared to various hideouts. They quickly realized where Israel’s response was headed to; hence, junior spokesmen were sent to address the cameras.

 

The next phase of Israel’s operation included the extension of the assault to Hamas as well. The assumption was that Hamas’ chiefs must have been aware of the PRC terror cell that headed to the Sinai to carry out attacks from there. A week before the Eilat offensive, PRC terrorists fired Grad Missiles at Kiryat Gat, and Hamas proceeded to detain the shooters, further demonstrating that it is deeply familiar with what goes on among “rogue groups” in Gaza.

 

In retrospect it turned out that not everything works by the book: To the great amazement of Israel’s experts, Hamas was truly surprised by the Eilat-area attacks.

 

Zero hour for the large, comprehensive facet of the operation was set. The countdown began. The manpower numbers at some units were complemented with reservists. Less than 24 hours remained before a war broke out. Yet then, Saturday night, a diplomatic opportunity to end the escalation emerged. Hamas initiated a ceasefire.

 

Hamas doesn’t want war  

Officials quickly discovered that Hamas was embarrassed and confused by the fact that someone in the organization assumed responsibility for ending the lull and firing rockets at Ofakim and Beersheba that caused casualties. As it turned out, Hamas did not fire the rockets, and even sent police officers in an attempt to curb the shooters. Hamas heads directly approached the Americans and Egyptians and sought a ceasefire. Israel was aware of these inquiries virtually in real time.

 

Hamas chiefs did not plan or want this confrontation; not now. They were concerned about being blamed that they are pulling the rug from under Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the September independence bid. Moreover, the economic situation in Gaza is worsening. The government is having trouble paying salaries, with the amount of money pouring into the Strip at this time being a fraction of past fund transfers.

 

Don't want to be blamed for botched statehood bid. Haniyeh and Abbas (Photo: Reuters)
Don't want to be blamed for botched statehood bid. Haniyeh and Abbas (Photo: Reuters)

 

At this time, officials in the Strip need calm and support from Cairo in the contacts on the Gilad Shalit swap. Hamas also fears that Egypt would close the Rafah Crossing. Furthermore, Hamas leaders in Gaza realized that what Israel characterized as a “disproportional response” to the rocket fire was merely the groundwork for a large-scale operation.

 

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh dared leave his hideout only on Tuesday, some 24 hours after the ceasefire. Top Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders are still huddled in bomb shelters, for good reason apparently. On Wednesday, an Islamic Jihad member was killed. Another one was assassinated early Thursday. This pattern will continue. The message in the wake of the Eilat-area offensive is unequivocal: Pinpoint eliminations are back, even if the price of each surgical strike is a night of mortar shells and Grad rockets aimed at southern Israel.

 

Shin Bet supports op  

Saturday night, the Egyptians and Americans asked Israel to adhere to the ceasefire and refrain from launching a military campaign. Simultaneously, Egypt’s supreme military council made efforts to curb the anti-Israel wave sweeping the streets. If you act aggressively, the Egyptians told Israel, we would not be able to mediate vis-à-vis Hamas and we may not be able to contain the masses who seek to target Israeli symbols in Cairo.

 

During last weekend’s discussions, Israel’s forum of top eight government ministers did not only address the fears of collapsed ties with Egypt. They also spoke of the concern that a military operation would bring Israel into September in an inferior position, with states currently sitting on the fence opting to support the Palestinians. Officials also spoke of the shaky state of the Jordanian regime, which may be further destabilized as result of great shocks in Gaza. They also discussed further deterioration in our relationship with Turkey, which has become Gaza’ patron.

 

There was no consensus among participants in the meeting. The Shin Bet, for example, supported a military operation, despite all the diplomatic considerations, and promised to deliver the targets. However, some military officials noted that Hamas did not fire during the Gaza escalation. This was the first time the group’s facilities were hit, its people were killed, yet it held its fire. Several officers said this constituted clear proof that our deterrence is still stable.

 

And so, by midweek the army lowered its alert level, although it was immediately raised again; one warning elapsed but others emerged. Wednesday morning, inspectors cleared the Ashdod beach. Warnings about planned suicide attacks remerged. Meanwhile, The Shin Bet detained some 150 Hamas members, including political activists and parliamentarians, in the Hebron region early last week. This was characterized as the biggest arrest operation, in one night, since the peak of the second Intifada in 2002.

 

As September approaches, the IDF is being stretched beyond its means, and there will apparently be no escaping the need to call up reservists. Our leadership is navigating through a minefield. Just like we were on the verge of war Saturday night, with most of the public being completely oblivious to the unfolding drama, it can happen again tomorrow morning. The war book is ready.

 

 

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