When considering Operation Pillar of Cloud, and the Israel-Gaza crisis in general, it is helpful to consider “how did we get from there to here?”.
To me it seems obvious that the “original sin” was the withdrawal (aka “Disengagement” or expulsion) of settlements, settlers and IDF troops from Gaza in 2005, instigated by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I won’t go into the reasoning behind Sharon’s decision; it has been debated to death yet is still not clear to many people but it has been a fait accompli now for over 7 years. We are now left to deal with the results of that disastrous decision, as we have seen these past 2 weeks.
Micahel Freund in the Jerusalem Post addresses this exact point in his article Back to the future in Gaza:
For all the talk over the past few days regarding whether the IDF should return to Gaza, no one seems to be asking the most obvious of questions: Why did Israel leave in the first place? This is more than just a matter of historical curiosity. It goes to the very heart of the dilemma currently confronting Israel’s decision makers: is it better to have a physical military presence in Gaza or not? The experience of the past seven years, since then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the forcible expulsion of Gaza’s Jews and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the area, demonstrates quite clearly that a permanent IDF presence is the most effective way to combat Palestinian terror in the Strip.
At the time, the air was thick with promises of the new day that would dawn over the Middle East, and pledges that Sharon’s bold move would bring about an improvement in the security situation.
How quickly those assurances proved empty! Consider the following: In the three years prior to the Israeli withdrawal, from 2002 to 2004, Palestinians in Gaza fired a total of 3,037 mortars and rockets at the Jewish state, according to data compiled by the IDF. But in the three years after the pullout, from 2006-2008, that figure more than doubled, soaring to 6,828.
After Operation Cast Lead was launched in late December 2008, the number of attacks on Israel dropped for two years, until the recent upsurge of violence began, with more than 1,435 rockets fired at Israel thus far in 2012.
The simple arithmetic is clear. Pulling out of Gaza was clearly a grave strategic error, one that continues to haunt Israel and the millions of citizens living within range of Palestinian rockets.
Whether we like it or not, the only proven way to reduce the violence emanating from Gaza is for the IDF to be deployed there, on the ground and in the air. An IDF presence in Gaza does not mean there will be no attacks, but it most certainly does mean fewer assaults on our towns and cities.
Of course, there were many prominent Israelis who opposed the Gaza pullout from the outset and repeatedly sought to warn against it. With a prescience that would prove near flawless, they foretold the dangers that would result from an Israeli retreat.
Natan Sharansky, who was then serving as a minister without portfolio, told the plenum, “Just as at Oslo, they are deluding us, as though one can solve the conflict between us and the Palestinians at the cost of withdrawal, with a quick solution. And just as at Oslo, so too now the result will be the same: blood and more blood, war and more war.”
“It is not possible,” he said, “to disengage from the terror and hatred of Gaza without Gaza following and pursuing us.”
Uzi Landau, who served at the time as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was no less resolute.
“When Katyusha rockets will fall in Ashkelon, and we will have to go back in, we will be invading a semi-sovereign state. Will that make our international situation any easier, will we be able to withstand the pressure that will be applied to us?” Others, such as the late MK Yuri Stern, correctly noted that a pullout from Gaza would inevitably result in more Israeli casualties.
Reading these words years later, one is struck by just how applicable they are today, when Israel has been wrestling with the question of whether to pursue a cease-fire or deploy ground forces in Gaza.
Leaving Gaza in 2005 created a vacuum, one that Hamas and other terrorist organizations were only too happy to fill. They transformed it into a large staging ground for unprecedented attacks against Israel and its cities. We can continue to play ping pong Gaza-style, sending the IDF in and out every few years while subjecting the residents of southern Israel to unending misery.
Or we can finally say “enough,” reassert control over the area, and topple the Hamas regime once and for all.
To be sure, the prospect of doing so is frightening, and it would entail a high cost on many fronts. But at this point, it is most certainly a move that is long overdue.
In an extraordinary Mea Culpa (if that link doesn’t work try accessing it via Google) by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal – extraordinary for the simple reason that he is one of the very few people, if not the only one, who has publicly regretted his support, he writes of his regret at his support of the Disengagement:
Sometimes it behooves even a pundit to acknowledge his mistakes. In 2004 as editor of the Jerusalem Post, and in 2006 in this column, I made the case that Israel was smart to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. I was wrong.
My error was to confuse a good argument with good policy; to suppose that mere self-justification is a form of strategic prudence. It isn’t. Israel is obviously within its rights to defend itself now against a swarm of rockets and mortars from Gaza. But if it had maintained a military presence in the Strip, it would not now be living under this massive barrage.
Or, to put it another way: The diplomatic and public-relations benefit Israel derives from being able to defend itself from across a “border” and without having to get into an argument about settlements isn’t worth the price Israelis have had to pay in lives and terror.
That is not the way it seemed to me in 2004, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull up stakes, reversing the very policy he had done so much to promote as a general and politician in the 1970s. Gaza, I argued, was vital neither to the Jewish state’s security nor to its identity. It was a drain on Israel’s moral, military, political and diplomatic resources. Getting out of the Strip meant shaving off nearly half of the Palestinian population (and the population with the highest birthrate), thereby largely solving Israel’s demographic challenge.
Withdrawal also meant putting the notion of land-for-peace to a real-world test.
Finally, I argued that while direct negotiations with the Palestinians had proved fruitless for Israel, Jerusalem could use its withdrawal from Gaza to obtain political and security guarantees from the United States. That’s just what Mr. Sharon appeared to get through an exchange of formal letters with George W. Bush in April 2004.
Things didn’t work out as I had hoped. To say the least.
[...] In late 2008, Israel finally tried to put a stop to attacks from Gaza with Operation Cast Lead. The limited action—Israeli troops didn’t go into heavily populated areas and refrained from targeting Hamas’s senior leadership—was met with broad condemnation, including a U.N. report (since recanted by its lead author) accusing Israel of possible “crimes against humanity.”
Nor did the reality of post-occupation Gaza do much to dent the appetite of the Obama administration for yet another effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. That included a settlement freeze in the West Bank (observed by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, to zero benefit) and calls by President Obama for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 lines “with mutually agreed swaps.”
In 2009, Hillary Clinton disavowed the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters, saying they “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.” Even today, the Obama administration considers Gaza to be “occupied” territory, a position disavowed even by Hamas.
Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.
On the general subject of the changing geopolitical environment surrounding Israel and Gaza, Stratfor has a good background piece:
The strategic environment during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead was vastly different from the one Israel faces in today’s Operation Pillar of Defense. To understand the evolution in regional dynamics, we must return to 2006, the year that would set the conditions for both military campaigns.
2006 began with Hamas winning a sweeping electoral victory over its ideological rival, Fatah. Representing the secular and more pragmatic strand of Palestinian politics, Fatah had already been languishing in Gaza under the weight of its own corruption and its lackluster performance in seemingly fruitless negotiations with Israel. The political rise of Hamas led to months of civil war between the two Palestinian factions, and on June 14, Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah. Just 11 days later, Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalt and killed two others, prompting a new round of hostilities with Israel.
In what appeared to be a coordinated move, Hezbollah on July 12 launched its own raid on Israel’s northern front and kidnapped two additional soldiers, kicking off the month-long Second Lebanon War.
Casualty numbers aside, Hezbollah emerged from the 2006 conflict with a symbolic victory. Since 1973, no other Arab army, much less a militant organization, had been able to fight as effectively to challenge Israel’s military superiority. Israel’s inability to claim victory translated as a Hezbollah victory. That perception reverberated throughout the region.
At that time, Hamas was contending with numerous challenges; its coup in Gaza had earned the group severe political and economic isolation, and the group’s appeals to open Gaza’s border, and for neighbors to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political actor, went mostly unheeded. However, Hamas did take careful note of Hezbollah’s example.
Hezbollah benefited from a strong patron in Iran. Hamas, on the other hand, enjoyed no such support. Mubarak’s Egypt, Bashar al Assad’s Syria, Jordan under the Hashemites and the Gulf monarchies under the influence of the House of Saud all shared a deep interest in keeping Hamas boxed in.
While Hamas began questioning the benefits of its political experiment, Iran saw an opportunity to foster a militant proxy.
During Operation Cast Lead, Cairo did little to hide its true feelings toward Hamas. Though Egypt played a critical role in the cease-fire negotiations, it was prepared to incur the domestic political cost of cracking down on the Rafah border crossing to prevent refugees from flowing into Sinai and to prevent Hamas from replenishing its weapons supply. [...] Hamas was boxed in by Egypt and Israel.
The rest of the region largely avoided direct involvement. Turkey was focused on internal affairs, and Saudi Arabia remained largely aloof. Jordan’s Hashemite rulers could afford to continue quietly cooperating with Israel without facing backlash. The United States, emerging from an election, was focused on shaping an exit strategy from Iraq. Many of Hamas’ traditional wealthy Gulf donors grew wary of attracting the focus of Western security and intelligence agencies as fund transfers from the Gulf came under closer scrutiny.
Iran was the exception.
In early January 2009, in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, Israel learned that Iran was allegedly planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including anti-tank guided missiles and Iranian-made Fajr-3 rockets with a 40-kilometer (25-mile) range and 45-kilogram (99-pound) warhead. The Iranian shipment arrived at Port Sudan, and the Israeli air force then bombed a large convoy of 23 trucks traveling across Egypt’s southern border up into Sinai. Though Israel interdicted this weapons shipment — likely with Egyptian complicity — Iran did not give up its attempts to supply Hamas with advanced weaponry. The long-range Fajr rocket attacks targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the current conflict are a testament to Iran’s continued effort.
Hamas and Israel now find themselves in a greatly altered geopolitical climate. On every one of its borders, Israel faces a growing set of vulnerabilities that would have been hard to envision at the time of Operation Cast Lead.
The most important shift has taken place in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood carefully used the momentum provided by the Arab Spring to shed its opposition status and take political control of the state.
This rise of the Muslim Brotherhood spread from Egypt to Syria to Jordan, presenting Israel with a new set of challenges on its borders.
In Syria, Israel has lost a predictable adversary to its north. The balkanization of the Levant is giving rise to an array of Islamist forces, and Israel can no longer rely on the regime in Damascus to keep Hezbollah in check for its own interests.
To Israel’s east, across the Jordan River valley, pressure is also growing on the Hashemite kingdom. An emboldened Muslim Brotherhood has been joined by disillusioned tribes from the East Bank in openly calling for the downfall of the king.
Beyond its immediate periphery, Israel is struggling to find parties interested in its cause. The Europeans remain hostile to anything they deem to be excessive Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians.
The United States remains diplomatically involved in trying to reach a cease-fire, but as it has made clear throughout the Syrian crisis, Washington does not intend to get dragged into every conflagration in the Middle East. [...] In the case of Turkey, there appears to be little that Ankara can do to mediate the conflict. Turkish-Israeli relations have been severely strained since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Moreover, although the Turkish government is trying to edge its way into the cease-fire negotiations to demonstrate its leadership prowess to the region, Ankara is as wary of appearing too close to a radical Islamist group like Hamas as it is of appearing in the Islamic world as too conciliatory to Israel.
Saudi Arabia was already uncomfortable with backing more radical Palestinian strands, but Riyadh now faces a more critical threat — the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist political activism poses a direct threat to the foundation of the monarchy, which has steadfastly kept the religious establishment out of the political domain.
Iran, meanwhile, is working feverishly to stem the decline of its regional influence.
An emboldened Sunni opposition in Syria, backed by the West, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, could spill into Lebanon to threaten Hezbollah’s position and eventually threaten Iran’s position in Iraq. With each faction looking to protect itself, Iran can no longer rely as heavily on militant proxies in the Levant, especially Palestinian groups that see an alignment with Iran as a liability in the face of a Sunni rebellion. But Iran is also not without options in trying to maintain a Palestinian lever against Israel.
Hamas would not be able to strike Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with long-range rockets had it not been for Iran, which supplied these rockets through Sudan and trained Palestinian operatives on how to assemble them in Gaza. Even if Hamas uses up its arsenal of Fajr-5s in the current conflict and takes a heavy beating in the process, Iran has succeeded in creating a major regional distraction to tie down Israel and draw attention away from the Syrian rebellion. Iran supplied Hezbollah with Zelzal rockets capable of reaching Haifa during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Hamas was limited to shorter-range Qassam and Grad rockets in Operation Cast Lead but now has Iranian-made Fajr-5s to target Israel’s most cherished cities.
Hamas is now carrying the mantle of resistance from Hezbollah in hopes of achieving a symbolic victory that does not end up devastating the group in Gaza. Israel’s only hope to deny Hamas that victory is to eliminate Hamas’ arsenal of these rockets, all the while knowing that Iran will likely continue to rely on Egypt’s leniency on the border to smuggle more parts and weaponry into Gaza in the future.
Sadly there is no advice on how Israel is to do precisely that.
For details on what the Hamas arsenal consists of, read this item from the Times of Israel: From sewage pipes to sophisticated missiles.
Another article which sheds much insight into Hamas’s own reasoning for starting this latest round of violence at this particular moment was published in NOW Lebanon, entitled Hamas’s escalation miscalculation (which I would edit to read “miscalculation”):
Hamas’ decision to escalate rocket attacks on Israel leading up to the latest conflagration was deliberate. One question remains largely unanswered: What was Hamas’ calculation behind this escalation? In short, the Palestinian Islamist movement set out to impose new rules of engagement, not only on Israel, but, more importantly, on Egypt. Hamas’ war with Israel was, in fact, a failed attempt to reconfigure the power relationship with Cairo.
The advent of dramatic political changes in Egypt and Tunisia led many to believe that Hamas’ role in the new regional order would also be transformed. As the thinking went, Hamas would be integrated into the Sunni regional fold. In particular, the Islamist movement’s falling out with Syria’s Assad regime last year was seen as the turning point in Hamas’ strategic realignment away from the Iran-led axis toward the camp of Sunni states. The path ahead, it was assumed, would be a political rehabilitation of Hamas by the Sunni powers.
Hamas’ break with the Assad regime was the result of a cost-benefit analysis. The group understood that although the move would anger its Iranian patron, this was still manageable. [...] The Qatari emir, for instance, recently went on a high-profile visit to Gaza to announce $400 million for construction projects there.Qatari largesse is fine and well. But the central problem for Hamas is that Gaza’s gateway to the world is Egypt. This is so not only in geographic terms, but also politically and diplomatically, and, most importantly, militarily, as Gaza’s logistical routefor Iranian arms supplies runs from Sudan through Egypt. Hamas welcomes cash, but its primary concern is to increase its military capabilities.Here, Hamas saw the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the ascent to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, as its opportunity to lift the stifling constraints that existed under the Mubarak regime.
Hamas believed the new Egyptian president, whom it saw as an ideological comrade, would pursue a policy in line with Muslim Brotherhood principles and facilitate the group’s procurement of long-range rockets from Iran.
However, none of that materialized. In fact, the new Egyptian government was even stricter than its predecessor in enforcing control over the smuggling tunnels in the Sinai. In September, there were even demonstrations in Gaza, led by Hamas, protesting Egypt’s border policy.
The rulers of Gaza needed to up-end this status quo and set new terms for the relationship with Cairo. Hamas wanted Egypt to be the strategic depth of the resistance—exactly like Syria was to Hezbollah during the 2006 war.
To achieve this, Hamas moved to rewrite the rules and impose them not only on Israel, but also on Egypt. The steady escalation of rocket attacks on southern Israel was the new normal that Hamas sought to establish.[...]Hamas’ ambitious bid failed, however, as it misread both the Israelis and the Egyptians.[...]In other words, Hamas overreached.
From the point of view of another Arab, the estranged son of the founder of Hamas says that taking down Hamas is a necessity not only for Israel but for all of humanity.
Sounding more like the frustrated resident of a southern Israeli city after suffering days of sirens and rocket strikes than the son of one of Hamas’s founders, Mosab Hassan Yousef told Israel’s Channel 2 News on Friday that taking down his father’s terror organization “is a necessity, not just for Israel, but for humanity.”
Speaking from a safe house in a secret US location 48 hours after a fragile ceasefire ended eight days of Israeli-Hamas conflict, the former terror operative turned Israeli informant said, “Let’s not forget that our enemy is a barbarian enemy and they are using women and children as a shield.”
“Hamas was born to destroy. Hamas does not know how to build,” he said. “I doubt they will be able to build a modern Palestinian state and hope their lies will be exposed to the Palestinian public.”
The son of Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab Yousef broke ranks with Hamas in 1997 and began working for the Israeli domestic intelligence service Shin Bet. Ten years later, after helping Israel thwart dozens of terror attacks and arrest many members of his former movement, Yousef left for the United States where he sought political asylum and later converted to Christianity.
Speaking as footage of air force jets pounding Hamas targets in Gaza, and of IDF soldiers preparing their tanks for a possible incursion, played in the background, Yousef said that “If Hamas continues to threaten the security of the state of Israel, I believe Israel has the ability and the capacity to control the borders and cut off the weapons supply.”
Yousef said he was not surprised to see Hamas had proved capable of firing at cites in the center of Israel, as it did on several occasions over the week, aiming for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “I think the Israeli intelligence knew about Hamas’s capacity. That was a test to see what Hamas has in storage, and today we know their ability more than any time in the past. I am sure this will allow us to prepare for what is beyond the horizon,” Yousef said.
“Among the poor, hungry and ignorant Palestinians, Hamas’s credit went up, but I am sure that at the end of the day Hamas cannot provide Palestinians with peace,” he added.
The solution, according to Yousef, is to educate Gazans about their real friends and foes. ”We need to expose the lies and educate the Palestinian public that Israel is not the enemy. Israel actualy helps the people of Gaza more than anybody else,” he said. “We need the average Palestinian to see this clearly.”
In a particularly poignant part of the interview, Yousef chose to use the camera to speak directly to his father, the man who publicly disowned him two years ago.
“I am sure that Hamas people, people like my father are listening to this interview. It is not courageous of them to hide behind children and launch missiles. Israel was out [of Gaza, having removed all its civilians and its military in the disengagement of 2005]. The battlefield was out of the populated areas. If they [Hamas members] had courage they could have come out of the Gaza Strip instead of hiding like rats,” he charged.
If only Yousef’s words would reach their target, how the Middle East could look so different.
And now for one final (I hope, but no promises!) analysis of Israel’s gains and losses in this operation: Limited goals bring limited results writes Raphael Ahren in Times of Israel:
Everyone in Israel knows that the ceasefire announced Wednesday does not mean the conflict is over, or even that the rocket attacks from Gaza will now cease. Yet the country is broadly split into two camps: one is happy that, after eight days of fighting, a ceasefire has been announced and Operation Pillar of Defense has come to an end. The other is frustrated that Jerusalem ostensibly caved into international pressure and “didn’t finish the job.”
So was it worth it? In the days preceding the launch of the campaign, rocket fire from Gaza had made life almost untenable for Israelis in the target zone. But did Operation Pillar of Defense achieve its goals?
Speaking in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman hailed the offensive as a great success, a resounding victory. But so did Hamas.
Looking at the bigger picture, Hamas gained in influence and some say in international legitimacy. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood showed that it can put pragmatism ahead of ideology. And US President Barack Obama showed to the declared satisfaction of Netanyahu that, all previous bickering notwithstanding, his administration stands steadfastly by Israel’s side.
The rockets on the South might have tailed off. But Hamas is still in power, and the residents of the South aren’t the only ones who fear that the calm could be over as soon as Hamas feels emboldened enough to pick another fight. A snap survey on Channel 2 Wednesday night found only 7% of Israelis think the truce will hold for long.
Everyone in Israel is doubtless happy some level of quiet will return to the South, if the ceasefire holds. But many people are frustrated that Israel “didn’t go all the way” — did not attempt to topple Hamas or at least deal it a much stronger blow.
Since the mission’s stated goals were “reasonable,” as one official called them — in that Israel did not vow to hunt down every single terrorist hiding in the Strip, or to smash Hamas — the government can declare a job well done. The troika of Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman avoided a potentially protracted and bloody ground invasion, which would have gradually cost the government international support.
“We achieved all our goals and more,” a senior government official said shortly before the ceasefire was finalized. Jabari was killed — which some commentators compared to Obama taking out Al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden — and so were some other terror heavyweights. The Air Force destroyed most of the Fajr long-range rockets that threatened Israel’s population centers. And more than 1,500 air strikes in Gaza wiped out much of Hamas’s infrastructure, including gas pipelines and government offices.
Did Barak and Netanyahu succeed in restoring Israel’s deterrent capability? This will become clear only in the coming weeks and months. But Hamas and other hell-bent Islamist terror groups, say some analysts, will not likely sit back for long. On the other hand, other pundits argue, the northern front has been surprisingly quiet since Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Some observations can be definitively made.
First of all, Egypt, which played a central role in brokering the ceasefire, proved itself a rational player interested in containing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas comes out of Operation Pillar of Defense weakened military, but with apparent gains in status and international importance. By provoking Israel to escalate its response to incessant rocket fire, the Islamists returned the Palestinian question to the center of world attention. That is something Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was never able to achieve, not with threats to step down or to dismantle the PA, and not with his plan to ask the United Nations for upgraded nonmember status.
The PA, on the other hand, has become nearly irrelevant. “Since the crisis began, President Obama seems to have talked to every other Middle Eastern leader except Abbas,” Miller noted.
Remembering the harsh diplomatic aftermath of Cast Lead, with allegations of war crimes and disproportionality, the government this time made a concerted effort to maintain international legitimacy.
In the days before Israel launched the Pillar of Defense, the government worked hard to create understanding for Israel’s need to act. Jerusalem’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, sent several letters to the Security Council complaining about the rockets. Netanyahu gathered some 50 foreign ambassadors in Ashkelon two days before the campaign started, telling them that “we’ll take whatever action is necessary to put a stop to [the rockets on the south]… This is not merely our right, it’s also our duty… Any fair-minded person in any fair-minded government in the world would understand that it’s our right to defend our people, and this is what we shall do.”
This preemptive pro-Israel advocacy seems to have had some beneficial impact.
Press coverage was also relatively positive, an Israeli official said. While some media outlets, especially in the UK, portrayed Israel’s action in a generally negative way, most newspapers and TV stations were rather fair in their reporting. The Spanish press, known to be staunchly pro-Palestinian, this time was “surprisingly supportive,” the official said.
Most importantly, perhaps, Israel’s relationship with the US seemed firm. So much had been written about the bad chemistry and political differences between Obama and Netanyahu. Some of the president’s opponents claimed he was liable to “throw Israel under the bus”…
In the event, the White House stood firmly behind Israel’s right to defend itself with no ifs, ands or buts, the prime minister indicated.
In fact, the US was the only nation that commented on the operation without publicly urging Jerusalem against a ground operation. Netanyahu, in Wednesday’s press conference, hence made a point to “particularly” thank Obama for his “resolute support for Israel’s actions, for this operation and for Israel’s right to defend itself.”
“If this constitutes the US throwing Israel under the bus,” quipped one pundit this week, “I wish they’d throw us under a train.”
My own concluding thoughts for the moment: I shall file this article away to be used again at some point in the near future, when, although I hope and pray I will be proven wrong, it will be deja vu all over again.