As of Monday, the defense minister, IDF chief of staff, and Shin Bet director have not yet asked the government to approve a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip.
But this will apparently happen in two or three days. In the middle of the week, the prime minister is expected to convene an emergency session to discuss developments in the Gaza Strip. During the meeting, top security officials will demand to act rapidly and extensively in order to thwart, on time, Hamas' intention to adopt Hizbullah's South Lebanon deployment model in the Strip.
The IDF Southern Command has already formulated an operational plan: More accurately, several alternatives for an operation, or a series of operations of different scopes, ranging from a highly limited assault to a full-scale attack.
The PM and ministers will have to first decide in principle whether to launch an operation at this time and if so to what extent. Later, the detailed operational plan will be submitted for cabinet approval. It is likely that even if a decision is made on an operation, it will only be executed following the prime minister's visit to Washington next month.
It won't be an easy or simple process. Not only because for the first time since the Lebanon war, the process and quality of government decision-making on a relatively large-scale move that involves diplomatic and military risks and a reserve call-up will be tested.
More significantly, because the considerations in favor and against are numerous and complex, any decision taken would feature an element of gamble. It should be noted that the current government cannot allow itself a failure or even semi-success. It is better to do nothing than to fail and lead to further deterioration in the State of Israel's power of deterrence.
The operation, or series of operations, is meant to address three problems: The first one is the smuggling of arms, explosives, and technological know-how that would allow Hamas in six months to a year to operate in the Gaza Strip just as Hizbullah operated in South Lebanon.
To that end, the IDF must block the Philadelphi Route and Rafah Crossing to prevent the smuggling of arms and experts. There is no doubt this is the most urgent problem and therefore also the top priority.
The second problem is to recover or neutralize most of the modern anti-tank missiles and industrial explosives that have been smuggled into the Strip already. A secondary mission would be to locate the tunnels Hamas has already started to dig in the direction of the security fence in a bid to infiltrate and carry out attacks in Israel.
The third problem requires the IDF to significantly undermine Palestinian terror groups' ability to launch rockets at Israel from the northern and central Strip.
Each one of these problems requires different handling and a unique military plan. As noted, blocking the Philadelphi Route in an effort to curb smuggling is the most urgent and burning problem. For the Palestinians, this is an essential bottleneck and should it be blocked, Hamas would not be able to prepare as it planned.
At this time, IDF forces are already working to locate tunnels in a strip that is four kilometers long (roughly 2.6 miles) and about 300 meters wide (approximately 1,000 feet) in the southwestern section of the route, near the Rafah crossing. Yet the entire route is about 13 kilometers long and includes dozens of other tunnels.
Therefore, the IDF has proposed, with the Shin Bet's backing, to take over the entire route and stay there physically for a relatively long period of time, during which operations to locate tunnels and prevent them from being dug will be undertaken using new devices.
Such takeover would also allow the army to prevent the transfer of weapons and explosives through existing breaches in the wall built by the IDF along the route. Taking over the entire route would also allow for intense intelligence surveillance and Shin Bet activity at the outskirts of Rafah and the refugee camps in a manner that will allow for the advance spotting of tunnel digging. This will also cause the work on tunnels to take longer and would make it very difficult to hide them.
In operational terms, such move on the Philadelphi Route isn't overly complex and does not require particularly large forces. An infantry brigade assisted by two or three tank companies can carry out the takeover within several hours. Under the protection of this force, large engineering troops will enter and proceed to uncover tunnels and build outposts that would allow the forces to remain along the route as long as necessary. The main difficulty associated with such operation is diplomatic.
Regaining control of the Philadelphi Route will be perceived internationally and in the Arab world as a renewed occupation, or at least a partial one, of the Gaza Strip by Israel and could lead to a wave of protests and possible Security Council action. In addition, we can estimate that taking over the route would reunite the Palestinians.
Not only Hamas will be sending its people to confront the IDF, but Fatah too, whose members will be presented as traitors should they fail to join. It should be noted that in the event that Israel will launch an operation, Mahmoud Abbas would have an excellent excuse not to proceed with the moves to neutralize the Hamas government, moves he has been promising for weeks now. He will also head the efforts to press Israel to withdraw.
The release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit could be postponed because of such a move.
Another option, which I believe is preferable, is to take over the Philadelphi Route for a limited period of several months. During this time, the IDF will dig a "canal" that is several meters deep along the route from the sea to the Rafah crossing. Seawater will be poured into this ditch and turn the ground into a "dough" that will collapse any time somebody tries to dig a tunnel.
This type of operation has already been considered by the IDF in the past and preparations were undertaken to execute it, but the disengagement put an end to the project's planning and execution. The advantage of such move is that Israel would be able to announce in advance that it only intends to stay for a limited time until this ditch is completed, and deliver on this pledge. Later, the IDF will be able to "maintain" the ditch and ensure its effectiveness through aerial means and infantry raids.
In military terms, the handling of the second problem is much more complicated, that is, the recovery or elimination of weapons and explosives already smuggled into the Strip. Most of these weapons are still in the Rafah area. Therefore it will become necessary to occupy Rafah and stay there for several weeks, particularly in the surrounding refugee camps.
That is, an operation similar to Defensive Shield. During this time, IDF troops will scour the area in a bid to locate weapons caches and explosives. The Shin Bet will at the same time undertake a concentrated intelligence effort that will make the searches more effective and ensure soldiers are not in the dark, but rather, heading to specific targets.
At the end of the operation, IDF forces and Shin Bet agents will depart but raids into the town will continue in order to renew the intelligence infrastructure, similarly to what is currently happening in the West Bank.
Such operation will require a much larger force and the danger to the lives of soldiers operating on the ground for a lengthy period of time will be greater. Another problem is that the Palestinians aren't "suckers." They already know by following the Israeli media over the weekend that Rafah is in the IDF's sights.
Therefore, we can assume that Hamas was quick - and is still doing so at this moment - to transfer significant quantities of weapons and explosives collected in Rafah to the northern and central Strip. There, the weapons will be spread across dozens of small caches that are difficult to locate, for example, at private residences as done by Hizbullah. Yet in this case too, the IDF will enjoy the advantage of physical presence in the area that will allow the Shin Bet to create an intelligence infrastructure and refresh it.
And what about the Qassam?
As to the problem of Qassam rockets, it appears that dispatching a large force to the northern and central Strip would be a gamble that is too big.
We must take into account the kind of moral blow that the Israeli public will be hit with and the kind of blow to the image of the IDF and the State of Israel on the intentional stage if even during such move, and after taking over large territory in the Gaza region, Qassams will continue to land in Sderot (like the Katyusha rockets in Lebanon.)
Therefore, it is preferable that the IDF continue acting against Qassams in accordance with the current method but greatly boost the intensity of its operations, including infantry raids and the arrests of wanted suspects that will supply intelligence information and enable the IDF to strike at production capabilities and rocket warehouses from the air.
There is no doubt that the State of Israel and the IDF cannot wait for Gaza to turn into South Lebanon, and therefore immediate action is needed.
However, in order to minimize risks and international diplomatic fallout, it is highly recommended that we focus on blocking the Philadelphi Route and boosting intelligence and small-scale operational activity in the northern Strip in a bid to curb the firing of Qassams. Such methodology would allow Abbas to continue his intra-Palestinian efforts and won't give the Palestinians a reason to join forces against us.
The State of Israel has a clear interest in seeing that the decline in the popularity of the Hamas government in the Palestinian street does not stop even while the IDF is working to destroy the military force the organization is attempting to build against us.