Israel's Goals, Hamas' Choices, and Egypt in the Middle

After six days of airstrikes against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, Israel faces a decision: to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas or mount a ground operation. Today, I spoke to my BICOM colleague Michael Herzog—a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who served from 2006 to 2009 as chief of staff to Israel’s minister of defense—about the framework within which that decision is being debated in the political and military leaderships.

The fundamental judgement to be made is whether the aims set by Israel for Operation Pillar of Defense have been achieved. These aims are modest in Israeli terms. The aim is not to topple Hamas. It is to restore normalcy for Israeli citizens by reinstating deterrence. To that end the IDF seeks to degrade the capability and motivation of the terrorists and deny Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip access to the long-range weapons that fell near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week.  

Jihadi groups have mushroomed in Gaza and the Sinai. These groups reject the “rules of the game” and Hamas either would not or could not control them. Israel responded to these attacks and found itself in a cycle. Hamas made the decision to become involved in the attacks on Israel and claim responsibility. They pushed the envelope too hard and miscalculated badly what the Israeli response would be.

The question is whether normalcy can be restored by five or six days of airstrikes. There is no rush to launch a ground operation that will demand a high price in lives lost on both sides and in political capital. There is hope that the mediation by Sunni Islamic powers, especially Egypt, can persuade Hamas to end the rocket attacks. There have been rising tensions between Iran and Hamas caused by the Hamas’s failure to support Syria’s Bashar Assad and the resulting Iranian withdrawal of funding from Hamas.

The question is whether “sufficient deterrence” has been achieved by the airstrikes of the first six days. “Sufficient deterrence” is not simply the cessation of violence. Pauses in rocket attacks have happened before and Hamas has used them only to strengthen its armoury. The pattern is long-established: periods of rocket fire on the citizens of southern Israel have alternated with periods of “quiet” during which Hamas smuggles an ever-more powerful arsenal of weapons into Gaza via a pipeline that runs from Iran through Sudan into the Sinai.  In 2008 Israel faced an arsenal of 5,000 rockets held by armed groups in Gaza. Today it is 12,000. In the past Israel faced homemade Qassam rockets fired over the border onto the people of Sderot. Now Israel faces advanced guided anti-tank weaponry and Iranian-supplied Fajr 5 missiles able to pound Tel Aviv.

“Sufficient deterrence” involves Israel being assured that the cease-fire is sustainable. The airstrikes destroyed almost all this advanced weaponry on day one. But now Hamas must undertake to enforce the cease-fire on the smaller jihadi groups that have flourished in the Strip. It must balance its desire to remain the preeminent “resistance” organization with the requirements of a stable cease-fire. And that may well require the involvement of Egypt. Israel is looking to Egypt to help end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza via the Sinai, and oversee the ending of Hamas’s cooperation with jihadi groups. Hamas has its own demands to put on Egypt regarding crossing points, open passages, and trade.

The post–Arab Spring regional landscape is by no means wholly a bad thing for Israel’s effort to pull Hamas into line. Yes, the days when an Egyptian government quietly encouraged Israeli attacks on Hamas and expressed disappointment when the attack was not pushed until Hamas was toppled are over. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood–led government is, for that very reason, better able to broker a cease-fire and restrain Hamas, should it choose to do so. And significantly, Egypt has not engaged in the wild rhetoric of, for example, Turkey’s foreign minister. Egypt says it wants to mediate and this could be good for all three parties. Hence the presence of people from the Israeli defense establishment in Cairo. As my Fathom colleague Efraim Halevy put it in the Financial Times today, “It is imperative that Israel contribute to an Egyptian-crafted and American-supported formula for the region.”

Israel seeks to make clear that the days when Hamas could rain rockets down on southern Israel are over. If Hamas, rhetoric aside, has understood this, a cease-fire is possible. And in time, more. If it has not, and sirens continue sound over the towns and cities of Israel, then it will discover that the force massed on its border is no bluff.


Photo Credit: Israel Defense Force 

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