Friday, July 18, 2014
Place Hamas in a vise
Operation Protective Edge entered a new phase on Thursday night, one meant to break the operational patterns that have become prevalent in the interaction between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas since the onset of the campaign in Gaza Strip. The IDF has launched a limited ground operation, meant to achieve specific tactical goals while increasing the pressure on Hamas so that it will agree to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal.
The decision to launch a ground operation was made 10 days into the Gaza campaign. The cabinet sought to avoid it, fearing it might become overly complicated and thinking that the operation could come to a conclusion -- via cease-fire -- sooner rather than later.
This premise, however proved false, and the change in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's position on the matter came following the foiled terror attack near Kibbutz Sufa, and the scope of Hamas fire on Israel following the five-hour humanitarian cease-fire both parties had agreed to uphold Thursday morning.
These two events made it clear to Israel that Hamas is determined to take its pound of flesh during the fighting and that opting for defensive tactics only endangers Israel, as it makes it appear weak in the eyes of Hamas.
The discovery of the terror tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa was the more significant of Thursday's incidents. The terrorists' plan -- thwarted thanks to precise intelligence provided by the Shin Bet security agency -- was to capture and kill Israeli civilians and soldiers. The early warning prompted the IDF to deploy additional troops in the area, and just two weeks ago, the soldiers held a drill simulating a situation involving an attack via terror tunnel.
The various defensive directives pertaining to the area have also been revised, to surprise the terrorists, and the troops deployed there included some of the IDF's elite units, such as the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit and the Maglan special forces unit, which were assisted by aerial surveillance and other measures.
Since the onset of Operation Protective Edge, the GOC Southern Command has advocated a ground operation against the terror tunnels; expressing concern that neglecting the issue would leave Hamas in possession of a strategic measure that could be used to launch a terror attack at any given time.
A senior military official noted that an operation of this kind was "well within the abilities of the forces" deployed along the Israel-Gaza Strip border over the past two weeks. As a result, the forces participating in the ground operation include highly trained combatants, who underwent extensive training for this very scenario.
The ground operation's main objective is to deal with the threats lurking under the border, but the IDF might opt to use it to deal with known rocket launching site in northern Gaza Strip, with aim of significantly reducing the rocket fire on Israel, as well as to eliminate as many Hamas terrorists as possible.
The IDF was not ordered to topple Hamas' regime in Gaza or to seize control of the Strip, although it might choose -- as it did in several previous operations -- to divide the coastal enclave into several sections, to make it harder for terrorists and weapons to move across it.
Israel hopes that the ground incursion will prompt Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. Hamas continued to dig in it heels during the indirect negotiations held in Cairo on Thursday, refusing Egypt's cease-fire proposals and insisting that Qatar be made part of the talks. Israel would rather avoid the latter, but has so far refrained from officially opposing Qatar's involvement, mainly because the main hurdle plaguing the talks is the overt animosity between Egypt and Hamas.
Hamas' procrastination on the cease-fire reflects its confidence that it could achieve better cease-fire terms than the ones currently on the table, even at the cost of further escalation. The organization was prepared for a potential Israeli ground operation, and each of Hamas' six regional divisions has an orderly defense plan meant to exact a toll from the IDF, mostly via the use of explosives and anti-tank missiles against the Israeli forces.
Such intensive urban warfare may not only cost soldiers' lives, but also mandate the IDF exercise even more force, which is likely to result in Palestinian casualties. The concern that the operation may become more complex, and therefore would need to be expanded, has prompted the IDF to seek the cabinet's authorization to draft thousands of additional reservists.
Israel hopes that the legitimacy the international community has lent the operation thus far will afford the IDF the necessary leeway to operate for several days at least, during which the military would be able to achieve the majority of its tactical objectives, ahead of a cease-fire agreement.
The IDF and the government already enjoy the Israeli public's support for the operation, but both know that it is contingent on three things that are difficult to ensure during the uncertainty of battle: keeping the operation short, marking significant achievements, and keeping the casualties to a minimum.