The only way to end the Hamas threat is one Israelis aren’t yet ready for – reoccupying Gaza
Judging by the polls, Israelis aren’t happy with the results of the war that (perhaps) ended last Tuesday. Only a third think Israel beat Hamas; most expect hostilities to resume within a year; a majority opposed the cease-fire; and a whopping 60 percent feel less secure than they did before the war.
These assessments may be unduly pessimistic. Whether the war achieves its stated aim of long-term quiet depends largely on how quickly Hamas can rebuild its arsenal, and with Egypt’s current government far more serious than its predecessors about preventing arms smuggling from Sinai, this will likely take longer than it did after previous wars.
Nevertheless, Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza, and its desire to destroy Israel is undiminished. Even without resupply, it has enough rockets and mortars left for another war: about 3,000, according to IDF estimates. And in time, it probably will be able to replenish its arsenal: Egyptian border guards have frequently proven corruptible; the current Egyptian government may not last; and Western pressure, which has repeatedly led Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza over the past several years, will likely do so again once the war’s impact fades.
Thus, even if this war buys a longer period of quiet than the last one did (a mere 20 months), another war seems inevitable. And next time, the circumstances might be considerably less convenient than they were this summer, when many Arab countries offered Israel unprecedented support while enemies like Hezbollah and Syria were preoccupied with their own problems.
All this begs the question of why the government from the outset limited its goals to restoring the status quo ante in Gaza, rather than seizing what seemed like a golden opportunity to permanently end the Hamas threat. There are three answers to this question.
One, as I’ve noted before, is the Obama Administration: Since Israel depends on America for both diplomatic support and arms supplies; the kind of extensive operation needed to decisively defeat Hamas wasn’t feasible with an administration this hostile.
The second is Iran, which has long (and rightly) been Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s primary concern. The West’s nuclear negotiations with Tehran, which were recently extended until November, still look unlikely to produce an acceptable deal. Thus Israel may soon have to choose between bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities or letting it go nuclear. And if so, it can’t afford to have its army bogged down in Gaza.
But the third reason is no less important: Even though polls repeatedly showed that Israelis supported a broader operation, they would not have supported the only kind of operation that could actually end the Hamas threat – a complete, long-term reoccupation of Gaza.
To understand why this would be necessary, a closer look at the IDF’s successful defeat of the second intifada is in order. Popular Israeli mythology attributes this victory largely to a single operation, Defensive Shield, which lasted about six weeks. But in reality, as I explained in detail in these pages five years ago, Defensive Shield was just the beginning.
The operation was launched in March 2002, midway through the second year of the intifada. Yet in the intifada’s third year (September 2002-September 2003), Palestinian terrorists still killed 240 Israelis – an impressive 47% drop from the previous year, but nonetheless one of the highest annual death tolls from terror in Israel’s history. It took several more years of intensive effort (during which fatalities continued falling by about 50% a year) to bring West Bank terror down to the low levels of recent years.
Moreover, though the IDF initially withdrew from major Palestinian cities after Defensive Shield, the consequent sharp uptick in terror – June 2002 was the second-deadliest month of the entire intifada – quickly persuaded the government to send it back in again. And this time, it never really left: To this day, the IDF maintains full security control over the West Bank. True, it no longer sits inside Palestinian cities but it controls the surrounding areas and reenters these cities whenever it deems necessary. And this continued presence is essential, because absent a force willing and able to do the ongoing work of gathering intelligence, making arrests and combating arms smuggling, terrorist organizations will quickly regroup.
In Gaza, Hamas is obviously unwilling, while the Palestinian Authority shows no signs of being able. Thus to eliminate the Hamas threat, the IDF would have to retake control of Gaza permanently – or at least for the foreseeable future.
Most Israelis aren’t yet ready for that, because in contrast to the second intifada, which killed hundreds of people and paralyzed normal life throughout the country, this summer’s war had little impact on daily life outside the South. True, the greater Tel Aviv area suffered two to three rocket alerts a day, more than ever before, but the disruption was still comparatively minor. And almost all Israeli fatalities occurred either in Gaza or in nearby communities. That’s why a centrist like Yossi Klein Halevi could write last week that “despite all that’s happened since, which validated the apocalyptic warnings of the right,” he continues to have “no regrets” about the 2005 pullout from Gaza. Or why a right-of-center friend who has consistently opposed West Bank withdrawals could still ask me, “Why on earth would we want to reoccupy Gaza?”
In sum, Hamas hasn’t yet caused enough Israelis enough pain for a critical mass to be willing to reoccupy Gaza. And nothing short of that would accomplish much more than what this summer’s war did: a temporary lull.
Over the past nine years, Hamas has launched three wars, and each has been more damaging than the last. If this escalation continues, Israel will eventually have no choice but to reoccupy Gaza, because there is no other way to permanently end the Hamas threat. But as long as most of the country considers the damage caused by these periodic wars to be tolerable, successive governments will keep doing exactly what Netanyahu did: employ just enough military pressure to restore the status quo ante, and then start the countdown to the next war.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post