Critics aside, Israeli officials see successes in Gaza operation
JERUSALEM — A month after the Gaza war, with Kassam rockets continuing to fall in southern Israel, many skeptical Israelis are questioning whether the war achieved anything.
Since the cease-fire on Jan. 18, Palestinians have fired nearly 50 rockets and mortars at civilian targets in the Gaza periphery. Israel has retaliated with targeted assassinations and airstrikes against smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border.
The skeptics say the current state of affairs is identical to the situation that existed before the war: Hamas firing rockets and Israel reacting with extreme restraint. So, they say, everything is back to square one.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak says nothing could be further from the truth.
Barak argues that Hamas took a heavy beating in the war and that the Gaza-Israel border is on the verge of a long period of quiet. He sees the daily dribble of rocket fire as nothing more than a pathetic attempt by Hamas to show it’s still around. And, he says, the fact that Hamas keeps saying how close the sides are to a new 18-month lull, or Tahadiya, shows just how much they need it.
Indeed, it is Israel that is holding out and insisting that there will be no deal on a new lull until the captured Israel soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit is freed.
The view in the Cabinet and among the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces is that the war achieved a number of highly significant goals: It transformed Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis Hamas and in the region as a whole, and it is only a matter of time before this becomes apparent on the Gaza front; it created conditions for the release of Gilad Shalit; and it paved the way for an inter-Palestinian Hamas-Fatah accommodation that could revive prospects for a two-state solution.
Indeed, Barak speaks of a watershed event in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the full consequences of which have yet to be fully understood.
Right-wing politicians like the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to form the next government, argue that Barak and company did not finish the job, since they left Hamas in power, and that sooner or later Israel will have to go into Gaza again to topple the radical Islamists.
Even Kadima leader Tzipi Livni says the IDF may have to strike again if Hamas renews weapons’ smuggling on a grand scale.
Nevertheless, all the signs on the ground suggest a relatively long period of quiet in the offing. This is partly because of Hamas’ inability to find any effective counters to Israel’s military moves. In the war, Hamas’ elaborate defense strategy against an Israeli incursion collapsed. The web of tunnels and booby-trapped buildings proved ineffectual, and in the fighting many Hamas fighters and field commanders were killed with minimal Israeli losses.
The IDF estimate is that the Islamist organization does not have the stomach to go through all that again — at least not soon. In other words, the main strategic goal of Operation Cast Lead, the establishment of a deterrent balance, was achieved. Hamas needs a long period of quiet to rebuild devastated military and civilian infrastructures.
The war also transformed the relationship between Egypt and Hamas. Now in its mediation between Israel and Hamas, it is Egypt calling the shots with Hamas, not vice versa. And although Hamas has been conducting a terror spree in Gaza against Fatah loyalists, killing several and kneecapping others, there is renewed talk of a possible reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah that might allow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate for all Palestinians, making a two-state solution more realistic than it was before the war.
Indeed, Fatah will likely get a toehold in Gaza for the first time since the Hamas seizure of power there in June 2007. When Israel, as part of the lull, opens border-crossing points, they will be partly supervised by Palestinian Authority, mainly Fatah, personnel.
The new lull could take a few more days to go into effect because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it dependent on Shalit’s release, and he is using the opening of the border crossings as a lever to pressure Hamas to free Shalit. Olmert refuses to open the crossings until a deal on Shalit’s release is struck.
In return for Shalit, Hamas is demanding the release of 1,400 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails, including 450 of its choosing. Israel names 550 others, with the rest mainly women and minors. Among the 450 are the planners of many of the worst terrorist outrages of the second inifada, including the rash of lethal suicide bombings in buses, restaurants, discos and other public places.
Until now, the Israeli government had been against most of the 450; now the differences are only over a few dozen names. One of those slated to be freed is Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as a future Palestinian leader and as one who might have the moral authority to make peace with Israel.
Although the Gaza war inflamed popular opinion against Israel throughout the region, and harmed Israel’s close ties with Muslim Turkey, it helped restore Israel’s deterrent capacity by restoring perceptions of Israel as a regional superpower that was dented by the IDF’s relatively poor performance in the 2006 Lebanon war. It also showed that the 2006 war may have been more successful than first thought: Bottom line, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah stayed out of the fighting despite the fact that a fellow Iranian proxy was taking a beating in Gaza. This suggests that the same kind of deterrent model could hold for Hamas, too.
The war in Gaza had other regional ramifications. It was a first major setback for Iran after a string of perceived regional successes, especially the American war in Iraq that in crippling Iraq, removed the main barrier against Iranian expansion and enabled Teheran to create an arc of influence from Tehran through southern Iraq and Damascus to Lebanon and Gaza. Thus the war in Gaza not only was a victory for Israel, but also for regional anti-Iranian moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Achilles’ heel in the post-Gaza war situation is the continued smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter has warned that despite its goodwill, Egypt is not moving quickly enough to block the arms smuggling routes, which could undermine hopes for quiet. Indeed, a new Hamas arms buildup and a new right-wing government in Israel could mean that the lull might not last as long as Barak and the other military planners of Operation Cast Lead had hoped.