The Sliding Southern Gates of Gaza: Understanding the Resupply Issue

As the participants in AJC’s Solidarity Mission heard more than once during their brief but intense visit, Israel has now come face-to-face with a dramatic dilemma—precisely because the achievements of the campaign against Hamas exceeded the original expectations. Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, the IDF has dealt Hamas a massive, maybe crippling, blow. Almost all of the terror movement’s assumptions proved wrong:
  • Israel acted decisively, despite (ongoing) internal divisions, the approaching elections, and the false image of a hedonistic society. A strong, determined, and high-spirited military, both regulars and reserves, showed up ready to do battle to rid the South of the missile threat.
  • Hamas’s own tactical designs collapsed, as the IDF put into practice the bitter lessons of 2006: Units were thoroughly equipped, well-trained, informed by intelligence, and ready for battle, anticipating the various tactics (such as booby-trapped houses and the rush of suicide bombers in civilian clothing or even IDF uniforms).
  • The Arab world (if this is still a proper term) proved once again that it is deeply divided, and despite the angry demonstrations and the “Al-Jazeera effect,” certainly not to be relied upon by Hamas in their hour of need.
  • Even Hamas’s allies in Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut failed them: Despite sporadic fire (including a short salvo of rockets this morning from Lebanon) and grandiloquent speeches, they did nothing to deflect Israel from her purpose.
  • Ultimately, cracks began to show in their base of support internally, within the long-suffering population of the Gaza Strip. By now, it is showing real signs of strain.
Having achieved all this already, shouldn’t the IDF now find an appropriate point to declare victory and turn the stage over to the political and diplomatic efforts? Crucial to that decision is the question of preventing not only future rocket campaigns, but also the “resupply” of weapons to Hamas. Thus, the prevention of future smuggling efforts—even if it was not declared as a goal at first, has now become the decisive issue. What happened?

“Mission creep” is a familiar fear for strategic planners: A decision is taken to launch a military operation with a rather limited, cautious purpose, but the dynamics of the battlefield, of political and public pressures, or of both, push the decision-makers toward ever more ambitious goals, which is an almost certain recipe for disaster. The sad story of the U.S. entanglement in Somalia in 1992-93 is one famous case.

Once Operation Cast Lead got under way, this worry was paramount in the minds of senior IDF leaders—and of most, if not all, of the key political players. They did not want to be swept into the full conquest of the Gaza Strip. The sheer momentum of the military clash; the prospect that high levels of casualties (which never materialized) would feed calls for extensive revenge; to some extent, the political preferences of soldiers and even of the incredibly resilient families of the fallen, many belonging to the religious right—some openly awaiting an opportunity to restore Jewish life to Gush Katif—none of these, despite their salience in the media, could push Israel to risk a total war, so as to bring down the Hamas regime. Some observers in Israel suspect that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, unlike Tzippi Livni and Ehud Barak, does want a long, rolling war leading to Hamas’s destruction, but it is difficult to verify such assertions. As a team, the Cabinet was careful not to overstate the war’s goals.

Still, the “no resupply” aspect was made inescapable—with the debate now on how, not whether, this should be inserted into the “regularization regime”—by objective fact, regardless of politics. During the six month tahdi’a or calm, Hamas took a daring leap—from Qassam rockets on Sdreot (and improved homemade ones fired to the edge of Ashkelon) to the large arsenal of standard Iranian equipment they now wield. Therefore, in this respect, there can be no return to the status quo.

Several interlocking “sliding doors” could bring the levels of prevention from the paltry rate achieved by Egypt until now to a high level, high enough (in the 90 percent range) to make the cost, in caught consignments, too high to even try:

  • UNSCR 1860, for all its obvious faults and contradictions, does require the creation of “arrangements” on the Gazan side of the border: This could be limited (a small European contingent, mainly focused on facilitating trade at the crossings) or much more robust (a 1701/UNIFIL model—not much in its own right, but workable as one sliding door among many). It remains to be seen whether Hamas can be coerced into accepting this aspect of the ceasefire—or else, at one point, the IDF may feel compelled to do it unilaterally, i.e., “take” the “Philadelphi corridor” until a serious international force arrives to replace us.
  • Egypt, quietly (or else they would retroactively admit their past negligence), is formulating new policies and capabilities, based first and foremost on their sudden realization that an Iranian rocket base had been built on their border, but also on new techniques and technologies to greatly reduce the utility of the tunnel system. (Much of it has been bombed already by the IAF, but not yet entirely destroyed.) This is crucial—but not easy to present to the Israeli public as an achievement, when the Egyptians insist on secrecy.
  • The farthest-reaching, and possibly rather effective, tool of prevention should be an aggressive policy of preventing gunrunning to terrorist organizations on the high seas: Given international efforts in the northern Arabian Sea aimed at Somali pirates, and some of the language on Iran already contained in UNSCR 1803, the tools are there for action in the future by a coalition of naval forces.

Can this work? Perhaps; but even if Israel does agree, soon, to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, or just stops the operation unilaterally, the IDF will sustain its presence on the ground around Gaza and the option of further extension of operations so as to block the corridor, until Israel feels that the combination of sliding doors is adequate to prevent a return to the status quo ante.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC