The Purposes of the Ground Campaign

For most Israelis, more often than not, the death of a soldier in combat is like a death in the family: The name, the life story, the grieving family, friends, a heartbroken neighbor or high school teacher—all come home to us with a sense of personal loss, the bitterness over the terrible waste of a young life that could have been lived to the full. So it was over the last two days, when the first casualty of the ground battle, Sergeant Dvir Imanueloff from Givat Zeev, not far from where I travel on my daily drive to Jerusalem, was brought home from Gaza; a mere two years, the radio and papers told us, after his father was cut down by illness.

Sadly, by this morning there were four more names—experienced commanders in battle like Moshe Wertmann from Kedumim and Yehonatan Netanel of Ma’ale Michmas (both places, like Givat Ze’ev, in the West Bank), and younger soldiers like Nitay Stern from Jerusalem, and Yusuf Mu’adi of Yarka (a Druze village)—all four of them, all too tragically, killed by friendly tank fire in two separate incidents. By now a sixth name has been added, a young soldier from Beersheva, Alexander Mashvitzk, who died in an exchange of fire with Hamas activists on the outskirts of Gaza, fighting to protect his own home, which has now come under fire.

And yet, harsh as this may sound, in terms of what many of us feared might happen—let alone the apocalyptical promises about the “gates of hell” readily dispensed by Hamas and its allies—these painful losses, even added to the hundred or so wounded (most of them lightly) during the first three days of battle, remain well below what was expected to be the cost in life and limb in the early stages of the ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, the second step of Operation Cast Lead.

Still, what defines the value of a military operation is not just its cost, but also, as in most human transactions, the gain it is designed to secure; and in this respect, there has been a degree of confusion, particularly at the public and political level. On one hand, we all feel that Hamas, as a terror organization, as a violent political entity, and as a coup d’état regime in Gaza, has “honestly earned” whatever is being meted out to it. It deserves to be broken in battle and removed from power; indeed, the deeper we go in, the stronger is the urge to go “all the way.” But, on the other hand, there is at the higher political level in Israel, as indicated all along, a sober realization that no ready alternative is in sight, and we shall have to work (indirectly) with the rump of this regime to “regularize” realities in Gaza, once the fighting is over.

If this is so, why the need for the ground maneuver? Four essentially intertwined purposes come to mind—none of them, it should be stressed, related to any fantasies about “taking back” the Gaza Strip, or undoing the 2005 Disengagement, which are notions still harbored by elements of the far right:
  1. Denial, or at least drastic reduction and disruption, of the rocket-launching areas, most of which are located in the contested northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip—which needs to be carried out by military means, at least until an agreed ceasefire is reached. Such a ceasefire or hudna must explicitly disallow all future attacks (and block the channels of resupply, an essential Israeli demand);
  2. Erosion of the active fighting component power of the Hamas military wing (the so-called Iz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades), which until now has been only slightly reduced in the air campaign. This is not easy, as their tactics consist largely of withdrawal into the urban area. There, booby-trapped houses, pieces of furniture, even a man-sized doll filled with explosives, and a piano with a bomb therein await IDF soldiers; and terrorist groups are hiding (literally) underground or lurking among civilians. But with the help of careful, steady, and usually well-informed advances—never, as a rule, charging blindly into battle—this goal may be achieved over time (if enough time is provided by international diplomacy).
  3. As an undeclared, unwritten, but nevertheless relevant aim, the operation also intends to reduce the legend of Hamas as a would-be heroic fighting force. True, their fighters are determined, and suicide attacks—even by women—have taken place; but many, if not most, of their commanders went into hiding or took flight with their troops into the inner city and now try deliberately (and despicably!) to draw the IDF into battle in the alleyways of Gaza, where many civilian losses, from among their own people, are bound to ensue if the IDF is tempted. It will not be. Meanwhile, there are growing numbers of Hamas operators who surrender, unlike Hezbollah terrorists in 2006, who fought to the death (except for four who were caught dozing by their rockets).
  4. In a more general sense, exposing the grand rhetoric as empty—i.e., proving to the radical camp, lead by Iran, that they are wrong to assume that they understand where they are, and that history is moving in their direction. The IDF, after all, invaded right after the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, offered his reasoned analysis why the Israelis would not dare to do so. Despite this, Hezbollah held its fire, Iran did little in support beyond material aid, and even well-armed Syria acted as if (shall we be blunt about it) the deterrent effect of Israeli power was well felt.
It is too early to tell if the gains so far will indeed suffice for these purposes and help Israel secure a successful endgame (the latter, sadly, tends to be complex and slippery). At the same time, it is safe to say that the battle so far has been conducted with much greater attention to both detail and strategy than had been the case in 2006, and hopefully, despite some mishaps during the last twenty-four hours, this will continue to be the case.
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC