In the middle of January 2009, the IDF was a step away from toppling Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Operation Cast Lead was underway. The Gaza Strip, only 45km long and an average of 5km wide, had been broken up into three parts. The 162nd Division operated in the central area with little resistance. The 401st armored brigade and the Givati brigade were only 4km from the heart of Gaza City. The paratroopers were a little bit north of them. The road to the coast was open. And then, under a unilateral ceasefire, the IDF was ordered to withdraw.
"Two years after it took over the Gaza Strip, Hamas was still like a mouse," said a senior defense source who was deeply involved in the fighting at that time. "We could have removed Hamas without paying a heavy price, but (then IDF Chief of Staff) Gabi Ashkenazi didn't want to do it, and (then Gaza Division Commander) Yoav Gallant pretended that he didn't want to do it, because Gabi didn't want to do it. The political echelon didn't try to argue with the military. The recommendation not to occupy all of Gaza suited it."
That was how the matters looked from the perspective of IDF figures. Their perspective was backed up by the foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead, Tzipi Livni, who claimed that then Defense Minister Ehud Barak was the one who strove to stop the operation unilaterally, in coordination with Egypt, behind her back and behind the back of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In Gaza, they sense Israeli weakness
One way or another, as years passed, Israel's unclear policy toward Hamas in 2009 became an unequivocal, although unofficial, Israeli strategy of strengthening the organization at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The assumption behind this strategy was that Israel would benefit as long as the Palestinians remain split between Gaza and Judea and Samaria. The Palestinian issue would thus be pushed to the sidelines of the regional agenda, which indeed happened, for example, in the case of the "Abraham Accords" with a series of Arab countries.
But did Israel go too far in its "alliance" with Hamas and its steps for maintaining calm? Many people in the defense establishment did not like them. Differences of opinion with Netanyahu regarding the treatment of Hamas was the main reason for Avigdor Lieberman's resignation from the post of defense minister. And still, the misleading calm in Gaza could have continued, and suitcases of dollars from Qatar would still be arriving in Gaza, if not for a series of errors that almost "forced" Hamas to take advantage of a golden opportunity vis-à-vis Israel.
Well, it's not pleasant to admit it, but after four election campaigns full of enmity, Israeli society is almost as split as Palestinian society. The continuing political crisis has damaged our ability to project deterrence.
In Gaza (and elsewhere) they sense Israeli weakness. Last month there were countless errors by the internal security minister and the leadership of the police, such as insisting on the placement of a metal detector at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate during the month of Ramadan, and later withdrawing this position; the insistence on holding the "Dance of Flags" parade on Jerusalem Day, and then changing the route at the last minute; the various incidents in Sheikh Jarrah; and the failure by IDF intelligence to recognize the true intentions of Hamas, even though the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, declared explicitly that Gaza would attack because of the events in Jerusalem. All that was needed was to take Deif at his word. That didn't happen.
Perhaps due to the conception that Hamas is addicted to dollars, Israel did not see the organization was preparing for the strategic achievement of being seen by Palestinian society as leading the struggle against Israel, and turning the "Jerusalem issue" into a confrontation between the entire Muslim world and Israel (Whoever was alarmed by the rioting by Israeli Arabs is missing the much bigger picture. In the entire Muslim world, the firing of rockets at Israel is perceived as "defense of the al-Aqsa mosque", and even the UAE hosted a pan-Arab virtual conference on the topic of "defense of al-Aqsa and the Palestinian rights". From our perspective, this is horrible).
Tacticians fill the void from a lack of statesmen
Based on the huge Hamas achievement in terms of public awareness, it should be assumed that whoever thought of "Guardian of the Walls" as the name of the IDF's operation in Gaza did not consider its full significance. And no, the names of operations are not chosen in the IDF by computers, as rumored, but by commanders – real copywriters.
One way or another, Hamas succeeded in misleading the IDF and the political echelon during this entire recent period. And as a result, unlike the Second Lebanon War and operations Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge, this time we did not make the first move. The opening move has major tactical significance, and that was the case with the heavy barrage of missiles toward Jerusalem on Monday. It caused shock. Nothing less.
On the Israeli side, the government, which is wracked by disputes and has difficulty functioning, was caught unprepared. The void from the lack of statesmen has been filled by tacticians, led by the three main figures in the war of 2021 until now – IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, commander of the Gaza Division (who initially served in the paratrooper reconnaissance unit) and Israeli Security Agency Director Nadav Argaman, who was supposed to complete his term this month, but a new government, which is to appoint his successor, has yet to be formed.
Incidentally, it was none other than Aviv Kochavi who in August 2005, as commander of the Gaza Division, closed the gate at the end of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. Before that, as the division commander (for those who have forgotten, the rocket fire from Gaza started long before the withdrawal), he initiated the concept of "canopy of fire", based on using circles of fire from afar, mainly by the Air Force, to deal with the rockets. As chief of staff he maintained the concept of "opposing fire" even more than he did in his previous positions, despite its limited achievements.
One way or another, following the tactical surprise that enabled Hamas to start from the most optimal position, the three first days of fighting were seen as a success for Hamas, with the organization in near euphoria due to the rioting in mixed cities in Israel, pan-Muslim support, the closing of Ben Gurion Airport (for the first time in history because of a military threat), and the image of the oil storage tank burning at the power station in Ashkelon – all of those were more than could have been expected in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas tried to challenge the Iron Dome system using barrages of more than 100 missiles, but the interception rate remained at 85% or higher, as in "usual" barrages (in great part due to improvements to Iron Dome in recent years).
Will Israel take action to topple Hamas this time? Highly doubtful
On the Israeli side, there were a number of tactical achievements, such as the killing of a squad of terrorists within tunnels that were attacked, the elimination of mid-to-high level commanders, and the wonderful intelligence that led to the strike against the Hamas "general staff" on Wednesday.
What now? It should be expected (and hoped) that from now on the fortunes will be reversed. Apparently, Hamas has apparently already passed its high point. Israel's great intelligence and technological advantages over Hamas will become even clearer.
Towards the end of the week, the IDF started to deploy forces, including Golani brigade, Paratrooper brigade, and combat engineering troops, as well as a lot of artillery, to the Gaza border. The IDF and the political echelon made clear at the start that there will not be a ground operation in Gaza, but perhaps it will indeed happen in one form or another. If so, this time the IDF will not enter with unprotected M-113 APCs, but rather with heavily armored ones equipped with the Trophy system that provides protection against anti-tank missiles.
And since the war started at a high level of intensity (barrages into Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, countered by targeted assassinations and the toppling of multistory buildings in Gaza), this time it will not include many weeks without progress, and will not last 51 days like Operation Protective Edge. The Israeli pounding of the Gaza Strip will reach a climax within days or a small number of weeks. The assassination of very high level Hamas figures will be a main component of the Israeli attacks.
Hamas is expected to discover that it had great success in the beginning but then suffered a major collapse. But will Israel take action this time to remove Hamas from power? It is highly doubtful.
Interceptions above Ashkelon. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
It is most likely that the Egyptians will broker an arrangement, maybe even a quick one, to end the fighting after Hamas receives a serious enough blow for the strengthening of deterrence, as it is perceived by Israel (that is how the objective of the war has been defined until now). However, in war, as in war, there is no way of knowing for certain how things will turn out, mainly when there is a danger of the war spreading to additional fronts against Hezbollah and maybe even Iran in the North. Going into the weekend, much depends on the power (or weakness) demonstrated by Israel.
And one more thing. The longer the fighting goes on, the more it becomes clear that the biggest danger we face, even more than the missiles from Gaza, is anarchy and civil war. This requires determined and quick action that is unlikely to occur in the weekend of Eid al-Fitr that leads to Shavuot. It is a fateful issue that I will write about in another column soon.