The Dilemma over Military Action in Gaza: It May No Longer Be a Matter of Whether or Why--But of When, and How, to Strike

After long and complex preparations, the IDF struck hard on Monday, December 18: Two key leaders of the military arm of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the group that for long months has been most active in the daily Qassam and mortar attacks on Sderot and the kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, were killed along with their guards in well-targeted operations. The timing was to some extent driven by opportunity; it is not easy to translate Israel’s precise intelligence on terrorists’ whereabouts into action at a time and place where the likelihood of “collateral damage”—innocent civilians being hurt—can be minimized. Once a window opens up, the IDF is ready to pounce. Still, there were also political and strategic motives in approving this escalation (and such decisions are indeed made at the highest level). Until now, the IDF’s efforts were focused on destroying the squads of shooters in the field; now their command structure, all the way up, was effectively targeted and to some extent destroyed—though new commanders are bound to fill in Majed al-Harazin’s place. On Monday night a rocket-maker, Karim Dahdouh, and his aide were hit on their way to launch their mortars, and altogether ten Gazan terrorists were killed by the IDF between Monday and Tuesday.

Why now? The answer lies, above all, in the delicate realm of relations between the government and the IDF, on the one hand, and the citizens of Israel on the other. The latter, specifically, the people of Sderot, have endured an agony that has reached an unbearable threshold (or may have crossed it, in the eyes of many, long ago), even if the number of lost lives and limbs remains low, due to the limited capacity of the Palestinians’ homemade weapons and the availability of an early warning system and some safe shelters. There are many purposes served by governments in all societies, but the most basic contractual commitment, even if sometimes honored in the breach, is to do all that can be done to keep one’s people safe from the attacks of enemy forces. There may be excellent reasons for restraint, as it is evident that the radicals, pushed by Iran—PIJ, albeit a Sunni organization, is more or less a proxy of the ayatollahs’ regime—are trying quite deliberately to provoke Israel into a large-scale response that would derail the Annapolis process. There are also good reasons, economic and strategic, not to invest billions in reinforcing every house in Sderot and its environs against the enemy’s cheap but destructive devices. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never tried to hide his position on both counts—resisting pressure for military action and rejecting large-scale plans for “passive defense,” i.e. protective “shells” for Sderot’s houses.
But these considerations, while legitimate, are bound to be pushed aside when the next child in Sderot or nearby dies from a Qassam attack; this week a baby in a kibbutz near the border was within inches of death from shards of glass from a mortar attack that blew into her cot. The next time, or two dozen cases later, we might not be as lucky. So why not act before the worst does happen?

Moreover, the accumulation of weapons, standard explosives, and other supplies of guerrilla hardware in Gaza raises an even larger challenge: namely, how to preempt a Hezbollah scenario, in which, at a moment of crisis, thousand of rockets are aimed at key areas in Israel. The IDF, while rarely eager to fight large-scale battles, would prefer to act in a timely way, even if the cost might be high. Tensions have arisen within the Israeli leadership: On both the notion of an invasion and the need for shelters, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has openly broken ranks with Olmert. There is a sense (as AJC leaders were recently made aware) that a confrontation is only a matter of time—measured in weeks, not years—before the IDF again crosses the border, returning to territory that Ariel Sharon’s government evacuated in 2005.

Until a decision is made, more specific and targeted strikes are also a way to carry out the IDF’s mission and to prove to the people in Sderot, and beyond, that something is being done on their behalf; that the Qassam campaign will not go unpunished. Moreover, this present escalation could, in fact, produce the following results:

  • Attrition of the PIJ and other small but activist groups, whose cadres are relatively small;
  • Deterrence, even among sworn enemies: While Hamas had been widely assumed—and had declared itself—to be ready to avenge the death of its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in 2004, it actually drew a lesson and greatly restricted its attacks. The PIJ, despite its threatening rants on TV, might follow suit.
  • The damage done to PIJ serves as a warning to Hamas, whose forces in Gaza have never stopped the Qassam campaign—but, at the same time, have rarely acted on their own in recent months. Indeed, almost immediately, Ismail Haniyyeh sent out an urgent signal about his wish for a hudna or ceasefire.

The latter overture raised both hopes and fears: hopes that Hamas is now pleading for time—albeit to be used to maintain stability and to consolidate power in the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, even as Haniyyeh’s rival in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, is being enriched by huge pledges (in all, $7.4 billion!) offered at the Paris Donors Conference; and fears, because by allowing Haniyyeh to step back from the brink, we might lose the battle to delegitimize all forms of terror.

Be this as it may, the people of Sderot will continue to be in need of support. AJC has pledged to help create a “resilience center” there, to serve those requiring psychological attention. Various delays, some flowing from failures of Sderot’s town hall, have occurred, but plans for the center are now moving ahead again. Unfortunately, the need for it will remain for some time to come.

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