The War in Gaza
Tactical Gains, Strategic Defeat?
The Israeli-Hamas War, and there is little else that it can be called, has now lasted two weeks. Israeli jets have flown some 800 strike sorties, and the IDF has pushed deep into Gaza. Israel also continues to report tactical gains. The IDF spokesman reported that the fighting on the war’s 14th day continued the second phase of the ground operation throughout the strip, “with infantry, tank, engineering, artillery and intelligence forces operating in large numbers throughout the Gaza Strip, with the assistance of the Israel Air Force and Israel Navy.” He summarized the result as follows:
"The Navy, Air Force and Artillery Corps continued to assist the ground forces throughout the Gaza Strip, striking Hamas targets, groups of gunmen and terrorists identified in rocket launching areas and located near the forces.
. . .The IAF attacked a number of targets, based on IDF and ISA intelligence, including the house of Yaser Natat, who was in charge of the rocket firing program in the Rafah area, and the house of Muhammad Sanuar, the commander of the Hamas "Han Yunes Brigade". In addition, the IAF struck approximately 60 targets throughout the Gaza Strip, including:
. . . The Israeli Navy operated in front of Deir El Balah in the Central Gaza Strip, targeting Hamas rocket launching sites.
- A mosque used as a weapons storage facilities and as a meeting place for Hamas terror operatives
- A Hamas Police structure
- Fifteen tunnels used by Hamas terror operatives against IDF forces, some of which were located under houses
- Ten weapons storage facilities
- A number of armed gunmen
- Fifteen launching areas and underground launching pads used to fire mortar shells at IDF forces
The IDF will continue to operate against the Hamas terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip according to its operational plans in order to reduce the rocket fire on the south of Israel."
No one should discount these continuing tactical gains, or ignore the fact that Hamas’ rocket and mortar attacks continue to pose a threat. Nearly 600 rounds hit Israeli territory between December 7th and January 9th. It is also clear that there are no good ways to fight an enemy like Hamas that conducts attrition warfare while hiding behind its own women and children. A purely diplomatic response that does not improve Israel’s security position or offer Palestinians hope for the future is equivalent to no response at all.
The fact remains, however, that the growing human tragedy in Gaza is steadily raising more serious questions as to whether the kind of tactical gains that Israel now reports are worth the suffering involved. As of the 14th day of the war, nearly 800 Palestinian have died and over 3,000 have been wounded. Fewer and fewer have been Hamas fighters, while more and more have been civilians.
These direct costs are also only part of the story. Gaza’s economy had already collapsed long before the current fighting began and now has far greater problems. Its infrastructure is crippled in critical areas like power and water. This war has compounded the impact of a struggle that has gone on since 2000. It has reduced living standards in basic ways like food, education, as well as medical supplies and services. It has also left most Gazans without a productive form of employment. The current war has consequences more far-reaching than casualties. It involves a legacy of greatly increased suffering for the 1.5 million people who will survive this current conflict.
It is also far from clear that the tactical gains are worth the political and strategic cost to Israel. At least to date, the reporting from within Gaza indicates that each new Israeli air strike or advance on the ground has increased popular support for Hamas and anger against Israel in Gaza. The same is true in the West Bank and the Islamic world. Iran and Hezbollah are capitalizing on the conflict. Anti-American demonstrations over the fighting have taken place in areas as “remote” as Kabul. Even friends of Israel like Turkey see the war as unjust. The Egyptian government comes under greater pressure with every casualty. The US is seen as having done virtually nothing, focusing only on the threat from Hamas, and the President elect is getting as much blame as the President who still serves.
One strong warning of the level of anger in the region comes from Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki has been the Saudi ambassador in both London and Washington. He has always been a leading voice of moderation. For years he has been a supporter of the Saudi peace process and an advocate of Jewish-Christian-Islamic dialog. Few Arab voices deserve more to be taken seriously, and Prince Turki described the conflict as follows in a speech at the opening of the 6th Gulf Forum on January 6th, “The Bush administration has left you (with) a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza…Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine, following those who died in Gaza.” Neither Israel nor the US can gain from a war that produces this reaction from one of the wisest and most moderate voices in the Arab world.
This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting? After two weeks of combat Olmert, Livni, and Barak have still not said a word that indicates that Israel will gain strategic or grand strategic benefits, or tactical benefits much larger than the gains it made from selectively striking key Hamas facilities early in the war. In fact, their silence raises haunting questions about whether they will repeat the same massive failures made by Israel’s top political leadership during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006. Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
To blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes. To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys. If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it not apparent.
As we have seen all too clearly from US mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends. If there is more, it is time to make such goals public and demonstrate how they can be achieved. The question is not whether the IDF learned the tactical lessons of the fighting in 2006. It is whether Israel's top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them.