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The Gaza war one year later: strategic lessons learned


Q. A year after Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, how would you assess the ramifications and consequences?

A. Given the limited military, geographic and political nature of last January's Gaza war, the ramifications are surprisingly far-reaching. They cover the extent of deterrence achieved, consequences for future strategies of war-fighting by Israel and others, and of course the international reaction in the realms of war-prevention and diplomacy as well as human rights. And they are a decidedly mixed bag.

Q. Let's begin with deterrence: did Israel's military operation succeed in deterring Hamas from firing its rockets at Israeli civilians?

A. Judging by the situation during the past year, some deterrent effect was undoubtedly achieved. Rocket and mortar fire dropped to around one incident a day, with rockets and mortar rounds almost always landing in empty areas. Just recently we experienced the first flare-up of rocket firing, apparently in "protest" against the wall Egypt is building, but it too died down. Moreover, Hamas itself has not been involved in these attacks, though it has not always made an effort to prevent organizations like Islamic Jihad from perpetrating them.

This reality has led Israeli intelligence officials to opine that Hamas learned a lesson last January about not overstepping its military limits. Indeed, Israeli readiness to crown Cast Lead a military success now extends to a revisionist approach to the Second Lebanon War of the summer of 2006, as well. The latter campaign was generally considered a failed operation at the time; now, after three and a half years of Hezbollah avoiding attacking Israel, it is understood that the damage Israel inflicted back then hurt Hezbollah badly enough to warrant a positive reassessment of the deterrent effect of that war, too.

Undoubtedly, these revised assessments of the two wars' deterrent effect ignore a wide range of external contributing factors. In the case of Cast Lead, Hamas' decision to exercise restraint has also been influenced by considerations regarding a prisoner exchange and the movement's worsening relations with Egypt. Iran's entry into nuclear negotiations with the United States may have caused Tehran to ask its ally in Gaza to avoid renewed violence that could destabilize the region. Moreover, Israel has no guarantee whatsoever that Hamas will not renew hostilities at any time, for example in an effort to torpedo renewed Israeli-PLO peace talks or in response to Egypt's construction of an underground barrier designed to prevent further arms smuggling below ground.

Nevertheless, it does appear that Cast Lead achieved, however tenuously, the objective of deterrence. Whether the operation can be said to have achieved the Olmert government's official war objective at the time--"to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term"--we can only know in the long term.

Q. Moving to lessons for fighting future wars . . .

A. On January 6, Israel announced that it had successfully tested "Iron Dome", a defensive weapons system designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range (4-70 km.) rockets of the types used by Hamas and Hezbollah. The first battery will be deployed on the Gaza border by mid-2010. As Iron Dome and "Magic Wand" (which will intercept longer-range rockets and be operational in 2012) take their place in the IDF's arsenal, Israel enters a new military era in its efforts to deal with militant Islamist non-state actors like Hamas deployed on its borders.

The impetus for these defensive anti-rocket missile systems was the 2006 Lebanon war; Cast Lead merely reinforced conclusions already drawn then. Israel now aspires to neutralize, to the greatest degree possible, Hamas' and Hezbollah's terrorist rocket threat by demonstrating a capacity to intercept incoming rockets without recourse to a ground invasion like Cast Lead that--because these Islamist movements fight from within their own civilian concentrations--inevitably generates heavy civilian casualties.

Here it is helpful to recall that Israel launched the Gaza war in late 2008 only after it became clear that Hamas was expanding the range of its rockets to threaten growing numbers of Israelis in Ashkelon and beyond. Neutralize the rockets, whatever their range, and the need for an offensive war is radically reduced.

In parallel, Cast Lead also demonstrated the value of enhanced civilian defenses. Improved early warning loudspeaker systems and the dispersal of thousands of easily accessible shelters radically reduced Israeli civilian casualties in Cast Lead, thereby enabling the government and IDF to prosecute the war without undue pressure from the Israeli public.

(Parenthetically, the credit for initiating the Iron Dome and Magic Wand projects goes to Amir Peretz, an otherwise much maligned defense minister back in 2006. And the credit for producing Iron Dome in record time--considering the R&D effort required for this kind of cutting-edge technology--goes to Rafael, Israel's primary weapons development arm. Sometimes things go right. . . )

How successful the new rocket-interception strategy will prove is impossible to say. Skeptics abound within the security establishment, not to mention the Finance Ministry: intercepting a single Hamas rocket that costs $100 to produce will cost many thousands of dollars.

But another war like Cast Lead or the Second Lebanon War with their heavy reliance on air power and armored and infantry units would be even costlier--and not only in financial terms; we have yet to deal with the cost of Cast Lead in terms of Israel's international status (see below). Hence, alongside development of this purely defensive measure, a lot of thinking is also going into alternative military means that take a lower toll in Palestinian civilian lives and infrastructure.

Here it is important to note that the IDF saw in Cast Lead an opportunity to test the lessons it had drawn from its failure in Lebanon in 2006. Indeed, Israeli military and civilian casualties were radically reduced in Gaza last January, rendering the war far more tolerable for the Israeli public. But if anything, enemy civilian casualties increased--if only because, unlike in Lebanon, Gazans had virtually nowhere to flee to in response to Israeli urgings.

Thus one alternative strategy being looked at for the next round, if and when it comes, is greater deployment of Israeli commando units behind Hamas lines to target military and leadership objectives without recourse to heavy civilian damage. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi also recently announced an even greater reliance than previously on battlefield legal counsel in future ground wars.

Then, too, there is still a minority viewpoint that the most humane thing Israel could do in another Gaza war is to reoccupy the entire Strip. The cost in human lives would be high, but it would be a one-time cost rather than Israel being castigated by the international community every few years. As noted, this is definitely a minority point of view; most Israelis do not want to reoccupy Arab territory and Arab populations under any circumstances.

Q. Can you comment on what Israel learned from the Gaza war regarding additional Gaza-related issues like the Gilad Shalit affair and the economic boycott of the Strip?

A. In a word, nothing. There are strong indications that Hamas would not have provoked the war and would have maintained a ceasefire had Israel opened the Gaza passages to normal commerce in non-strategic goods. That is probably still the case today. The Shalit affair is one reason Defense Minister Ehud Barak claims the passages remain closed, ending up in a war. Yet in that war, the IDF was unable to locate and free Shalit. Further, Israel's hang-up about losing additional soldiers to Hamas captivity helped determine some of its harsher war tactics. Israel has allowed the fate of a single soldier to dictate too much of its strategic thinking regarding Gaza.

Q. This brings us to the international response. . .

A. Let's start with the good news. Under the ceasefire agreement that ended Cast Lead, the international community undertook to intercept arms shipments destined for Gaza and sent by Iran directly or via Sudan and Hezbollah. In the course of the past year, US, Israeli and other naval units have intercepted a number of such shipments at sea. Perhaps most spectacularly, Egypt has begun building an underground steel barrier along the Sinai-Gaza border in an effort to stop the tunnel smuggling once and for all. Hamas' panicked reaction along that border appears to reflect its own awareness that Egypt has finally gotten serious about cutting off Hamas' access to Egyptian territory.

There are many additional factors at work here that could affect the ultimate outcome of the arms interception effort. Egypt will be cutting off civilian as well as military smuggling, thereby potentially seriously exacerbating the economic situation inside the Strip. Hamas could react by adopting a more flexible diplomatic approach to Israel in order to ensure adequate supplies through the Israel-Gaza crossings. Or it could lash out with force. The prisoner exchange and peace process issues could affect its calculations. But in the long term, successful interdiction of arms smuggling into Gaza would make Israel's military task far easier. This, too, could be credited to Iron Dome.

Q. And the bad news?

A. Here we turn to the negative international reaction to the civilian and infrastructure casualties inflicted by Israel in Gaza a year ago. The most obvious manifestations of that reaction focus on Turkey and Goldstone.

Turkey's cold shoulder to Israel might have been forthcoming in any case. The government in Ankara is run by an Islamist party and Turkey's population has always been extremely pro-Palestinian. For several years now, Turkey has been developing a revolutionary and remarkably successful foreign policy initiative designed to position it as perhaps the major regional power, with highly developed diplomatic and economic interests and even alliances surrounding it in every direction.

Nevertheless, the timing picked for a major downgrading of relations with Israel by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the Gaza war. While Turkish-Israeli economic, military and even diplomatic links continue to exist, Turkey can no longer be considered an ally. Its relations with Iran and Syria are rapidly outdistancing those with Israel.

The Goldstone report and the international reaction to the carnage in Gaza that it represents would not have been forthcoming without the war. Nevertheless, they too represent a cumulative phenomenon with regard to Israel's perceived legitimacy and standing that was radically exacerbated by Gaza. And if Israel has made some progress in developing ways to deal militarily with the threats posed by Hamas and Hezbollah, at the global diplomatic level it appears far less skillful in countering the drive to delegitimize it--a drive that the Goldstone report, probably unintentionally, played into.

In the Israeli view, Goldstone wanted to hold the IDF to Geneva Convention standards of symmetrical inter-state war-fighting in an age where wars are increasingly asymmetrical and are fought against terrorist/guerilla enemies that use civilian populations as human shields. Moreover, Goldstone singled out Israel at a time when far worse civilian casualties were being inflicted by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Sri Lanka in Jaffna, with few if any international questions asked.

But nobody wants to hear these Israeli responses. Nobody wanted to hear that very true and courageous statement by British Colonel Richard Kemp, veteran of the Afghan war, that "the IDF did more to safeguard civilians than any other army." Israeli "hasbara" (public diplomacy) has simply not internalized the fact that until the occupation ends and wars with nasty neighbors like Hamas no longer happen, Israel will be increasingly demonized.

Under these circumstances, for FM Avigdor Lieberman to tell Israeli diplomats that the best counter-measure is to get out there and defend Israel's pride and dignity appears ludicrous. Instead, the best--indeed the only--effective measure Israel can take vis-a-vis the international arena is to find a way to get out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as soon as possible and to adopt a strategy regarding Hamas in Gaza that is not based on systematically depriving 1.5 million civilians of sustenance. 

This Q and A is a special edition of APN's weekly publication, Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher.

Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue and Middle East roundtable He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.