The Military Reality of Israel's Operation in Gaza Sets In
Hamas and affiliate militant factions out of the Gaza Strip are so far rejecting an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire, having launched far more than 100 rockets since the cease-fire proposal. In exposing Israel's inability to stem the rocket flow, Hamas is trying to claim a symbolic victory over Israel. Hamas' spin aside, the military reality paints a very different picture.
Palestinian militants have launched more than 1,200 rockets, but their limited range and accuracy combined with Israeli defensive capabilities have led to only one civilian death, less than 100 further casualties and disruptions to daily life over the past week. Conversely, Israel Defense Forces have struck more than 1,500 targets in Gaza, inflicting much heavier destruction on the militants. On the surface, the exchange of fire might seem balanced, but conflicts are measured by more than aggregate numbers of casualties and explosions.
Nonstate actors such as Hamas and many of its peer organizations, of course, need some ability to exert force if they are to influence the actions of a state whose imperatives run counter to their own. The Gaza Strip is small and its resource base is limited, reducing the options for force. This makes cheap asymmetric tactics and strategies ideal.
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For Gaza and its militants, terrorizing the Israeli population through limited force often has previously influenced, constrained or forced the hand of the Israeli government and its subsequent policies. It accomplished this with assassinations, ambushes or suicide bombings targeting security forces or Israeli citizens. A confluence of events later led to a gradual evolution in the conflict. By 2006, the security wall that surrounds and contains the Gaza Strip had eliminated militants' ability to directly engage the Israeli populace and security personnel, and Israel Defense Forces had completely withdrawn from the territory. Meanwhile, Hezbollah had demonstrated the effectiveness of relatively cheap artillery rockets volleyed into Israel in a high enough volume to seriously disrupt the daily life of Israeli life. While artillery rockets were not new to Gaza, the conditions were ripe for this tactic's adoption. The intent was to build up a substantial arsenal of the weapons and increase their range to threaten Israel's entire population as much as possible. (Increased range was also needed to overcome Israel's growing defensive capabilities.) This would be the asymmetric threat that could be used to project force, albeit limited force, from Gaza.
This threat has framed the Israel-Gaza conflict ever since. On one side are Gaza militants constantly working to smuggle rockets of ever-increasing ability and range into the strip while expanding their stockpiles out of direct reach of Israel Defense Forces, and simultaneously preparing launch sites to strike from when needed. On the other side, Israeli forces are constantly gathering intelligence and using targeted operations in an effort to keep rockets from entering Gaza, prevent the stockpiles of rockets from growing and destroy launch sites. Since 2006, this dynamic has come to a head three times, with serious escalation from both sides and resulting Israel Defense Forces operations. The first was Operation Cast Lead in 2008, which included a limited ground incursion. Next came Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and now there is Operation Protective Edge. Though separated in time, in many ways they are a continuation of the same security dynamic.
Much of this cyclical nature is because both sides are operating under serious limitations, preventing either from gaining "victory" or some form of permanent resolution. For Israel there are two main limitations. The first is the intelligence gaps created by monitoring from the outside and having no permanent presence on the ground. The Israelis have been unable to stop the rockets from getting into Gaza, cannot be sure where they are exactly and can only degrade the ability to launch with airstrikes and naval strikes.
This leads to the second constraint, which is the cost associated with overcoming this gap by doing a serious and comprehensive clearing of the entire strip. Though Operation Cast Lead did have a ground component, it was limited and did not enter the major urban areas or serious tunnel networks within them. This is exactly where many of the resources associated with the rocket threat reside. The intense urban operation that would result if Israeli forces entered those areas would have a huge cost in casualties for Israeli personnel and for civilians, the latter resulting in intense international and domestic pressure being brought to bear against the Israeli government. For decision-makers, the consequences of sitting back and absorbing rocket attacks versus trying to comprehensively accomplish the military objective of eliminating this capability keep weighing on the side of managing the problem from a distance.
But the longer the conflict lasts, the more complications the militants in Gaza face as they see their threat of force erode with time. Adversaries adapt to tactics, and in this case Israel Defense Forces have steadily improved their ability to mitigate the disruptive ability of these attacks through a combination of responsive air power and Iron Dome batteries that effectively provide protection to urban populations. Subsequently, the terror and disruption visited upon the Israeli population diminishes slightly, and the pressures on the government lessen.
So militants seem to be in a position to maintain their tool, but that tool is becoming less effective and imposing fewer costs. This raises the question of what new tactic or capability the militants will adopt next to exert new costs on Israel. Many surmise the incident that started this latest round — the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank — might become the tactic of choice if it proves effective in accomplishing its goals and is repeatable. The militants will also almost certainly attempt to refine their projectiles' accuracy and range through the acquisition of more advanced rockets or even missiles. What is certain regarding the latest round of fighting is that we are far from seeing victory or any form of conclusion and that the conflict will continue to evolve.