The government is in a Catch-22 situation: On the one hand, no act undertaken at this time would completely curb the firing of Qassam rockets; on the other hand, the current situation in Sderot must not continue because a country has to provide physical protection to its citizens.
This situation must also not continue because it erodes whatever is left of Israel's deterrent power – and may prompt a missile offensive from Syria and Hizbullah. So what can be done? The government faces several options:
In the civilian and economic realm – disrupting the electricity and water supply and tightening the economic siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. True, these steps would cause great suffering to the civilian population, but past experience shows that the effect of such sanctions on Hamas and other Palestinian organizations is marginal, while the armed struggle against Israel justifies their very existence and their actions.
These groups also get their orders and money from Iran, which is interested in more Qassam fire and terror attacks. Therefore, pressuring the Gaza population has almost no effect on Palestinian organizations.
At most, they will agree to a temporary ceasefire, if Israel and the international community completely give in to their demands and end the economic siege imposed on the Hamas government. However, this ceasefire will be violated the moment Israel detains or kills senior activists in the West Bank.
Israel would also be subjected to international criticism that would only grow stronger as the media increasingly airs images of civilians and children thirsty for water or of hospitals that lack electricity needed for life-saving surgery.
In the military arena – there are several options: The least dangerous to our troops and the most "convenient" in terms of international public opinion is a "targeted killings" offensive. That is, assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. In 2005, such a successful offensive led Hamas to declare a ceasefire that lasted for more than six months and included an end to Qassam fire.
The problem with this option is that it requires high-quality intelligence information and a solid system of collaborators that are much beyond what we have in Gaza today. Therefore, this option's effectiveness at this time is doubtful and it may only serve to enhance the rocket fire in response to IDF operations.
Another option is "firing in punishment" – a bombardment or aerial assault of the area where Qassam rockets or mortar shells are fired from. This modus operandi is more dangerous to Israel's status in international public opinion than it is to Qassam launchers.
A third option is a large-scale military operation. That is, overtaking the entire Gaza Strip or large parts of it for a limited time. Such an operation would allow the IDF to destroy Hamas' existing infrastructure pertaining to manufacturing the Qassam rockets and its general combat capabilities.
We would also be able, through wide-scale arrests and interrogations, to create an intelligence infrastructure that would enable us to quickly hit Qassam cells even after the soldiers leave Gaza. We would also block smuggling above and below the Philadelphi Route through a deep-water tunnel that would be dug from the sea to the Rafah Crossing.
Later, we would go in and out of the Gaza Strip again, utilizing relatively small units, in order to maintain the achievements of the initial large-scale operation.
The advantages of such an operation are clear: It would not completely curb the rocket fire, but would significantly minimize the ability to manufacture and launch rockets and boost the price tag for every rocket attack. Still, the government is not quick to order the IDF to enter the Strip. Even the defense minister and army chief are not recommending a large-scale operation at this time. Why?
Barak and Ashkenazi are concerned that taking over the Gaza Strip or large parts of it would also light the touchpaper on the northern front and lead Israel into an all-out war on three fronts before it's ready for such war.
They are concerned that an operation in Gaza would result in the suspension of contacts with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and would weaken his status on the Palestinian street, which is currently being boosted at great effort.
They are also scared of heavy IDF losses at a time when the country is still licking the wounds of the Second Lebanon War. They don't want to force the IDF to invest another two divisions in the Strip – including both regular and reserve forces – for a period of months, which will exact a high casualty toll. There are also fears over the fate of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Yet mostly, top security and cabinet officials are concerned about a further blow to the IDF's image and the State of Israel's deterrent power should the Qassam fire be renewed during or after the operation.
Despite these considerations, it is completely clear that out of all the options, a large-scale military operation is the most effective way to minimize the rocket fire and attacks originating from the Strip. In the long run, this is also the way to minimize the overall Hamastan threat on Israel or possibly topple the entire Hamas regime, on all this entails.
Moreover, if it doesn't embark on a large-scale Gaza operation now, Israel may end up doing it in the near future, but under much worse conditions. This could happen because of a lethal attack on Sderot that would force the IDF to embark on such operation hastily, for example, or because winter weather conditions will disrupt the Air Force's ability to assist such operation. Also, the international conditions, during the international peace conference or after it, would portray Israel as the party attempting to disrupt Washington's peace efforts.
In light of all this, we should start getting the move underway. First, submit an ultimatum to Hamas that includes an unequivocal demand to stop immediately the rocket fire on western Negev communities. Such an ultimatum would also prompt the international community to act and exert pressure on Iran and Syria, which instruct Hamas.
If the ultimatum is rejected and Qassams continue to fall, the government should order the IDF to enter the Gaza Strip. The initial incursion must be undertaken with very large forces and utilize a modus operandi that would split Hamas' ability to defend against such attack. Developments in the first few days would determine the operation's success over time and shorten the IDF's stay in the Strip.