The primary objective of IDF raids in the Gaza Strip Wednesday was to push back Hamas fighters and the armed groups that joined them away from the border fence that surrounds the Strip.
In recent days, IDF Southern Command officials noticed that Hamas fighters are getting closer to the fence and border crossings and are operating there with growing intensity. Defense Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, who both have bitter experience with Hizbullah's deployment on the border fence in southern Lebanon, decided to thwart a similar process in the Strip.
IDF raids on Wednesday were meant to prevent Hamas fighters from establishing themselves and digging tunnels in close proximity to Negev communities, border crossings, and IDF troops. If they were able to do that, in the near future they would have been able to infiltrate, carry out terror attacks, and abduct soldiers and civilians without the IDF having sufficient warning to thwart such acts. Therefore, the IDF is currently operating, and it will continue to do so consistently in the future, in order to create a "buffer zone" that is roughly 1,500 meters (close to a mile) deep, west of the fence. This "buffer zone" serves another purpose: Thwarting and disrupting rocket launchings from the Strip towards the western Negev.
The IDF's operational pattern on Wednesday, as well as the objectives, were formulated by the army even before Hamas' takeover of Gaza, and continued after it, but mostly in a sporadic and targeted manner. Barak's move into the Defense Ministry provided the army with the ability to plan and implement its activity in a way that integrates it into a clear strategy for curbing the long and short term threats created in the wake of Hamas' Gaza takeover.
This strategy, which is increasingly taking shape in the Defense Ministry, is meant to end or at least significantly minimize Qassam rocket attacks and prevent Hamas from growing stronger and boosting its operational capabilities in general.
We are talking about a phased strateg whose objectives are not merely military that will be implemented in stages. The results of every phase will be examined and the lessons will be applied in the next stage. What we saw on Wednesday was the implementation of the first phase. The depth of the incursion into the Strip – about a kilometer and a half west of the fence – is no different than what was undertaken in the past. However, the scope of forces is larger and the operation is taking place simultaneously through several main efforts at various sectors of the Strip.
Another difference has to do with the modus operandi: From now on there are no longer targeted raids and ambushes by small infantry forces covered by a few tanks, but rather, a combination that also includes armored corps raids.
The need to change the scope and method of operation stems from the intelligence-based realization that what was done in the past two weeks was insufficient in order to curb the quick approach of Hamas fighters in the direction of the fence and crossings. By moving closer to the fence, Hamas is able to shorten the range in order to quickly and easily dig cross-fence tunnels and fire Qassams to their maximum range.
Crossings are the keyThe crossings constitute a separate story. Before Hamas' Gaza takeover, members of Mahmoud Abbas' security arms made sure that Hamas does not disconnect the economic and humanitarian pipeline into the Strip through terror attacks. Abbas' people realized that those who control the crossings in fact control the population and are able to manipulate it.
Therefore, Palestinian Authority security arms showed greater determination in fighting for the crossing than they did in fighting for their own headquarters. Now, after they have withdrawn, Hamas is the master of the crossings even if it does not sit there in practice. IDF officials believe that Hamas has an interest in seeing these crossings closed off for some time in order to create a humanitarian crisis in the Strip that would prompt international pressure on and condemnation of Israel.
It is doubtful whether this is Hamas' genuine objective. It is much likelier that Hamas wishes to demonstrate its control over the crossings by disrupting their operations, in order to force the international community and Israel to transfer aid to Gaza residents through Hamas. "You kiss the hand that feeds you," says an old Arabic proverb. This is Hamas' way to establish its rule in the Strip and make residents obey it unquestionably.
Israel knows that a humanitarian crisis in the Strip, even if it was clearly initiated by Hamas, would come back to haunt us in international public opinion. Therefore, the IDF must push Hamas away from the crossings just as it has to bolster its efforts to prevent Qassam attacks and push Hamas away from the fence.
We should hope that these operations would be planned and carried out in a manner that minimizes the number of civilian casualties among Gaza residents. The IDF must strive for this and do everything in its power in order for it not to happen, and this should be part of its mission objectives. This is proper not only morally but also practically. The IDF's freedom to maneuver is greatly conditioned upon the reactions of international public opinion.