Operation Pillar of Defense, which ended on Wednesday, changed the Middle East, or is an expression of the limitations imposed on Israel’s use of force in the post Arab Spring era. And what’s the connection between the operation and the possibility of an attack in Iran?
Operation Pillar of Defense, which ended on Wednesday evening, reshaped the Middle East, or is an expression of the harsh limitations imposed on Israel’s use of force in the post Arab Spring era. It depends on the onlooker’s perspective.
In order to understand the complexity of the operation, we need to start in January 2009 with operation Cast Lead. The operation that preceded the previous elections was treading in its last week, and ignited a perpetual fire between Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Affairs Minister Livni, Minister of Defense Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi and Head of Southern Command Galant. It was, all in all, pretty successful. The operation achieved reasonable deterrence against Hamas, and created a 300 meter area “perimeter” to the west of the border fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. Despite occasional fire, the operation brought about two years and two months of near-total calm in the Gaza Strip region, until the terrorist attack in which an antitank missile was fired at a school bus in March 2011.
Since then, the timeframes between the rounds of combat have gotten shorter. Hamas and the other organizations had an interest in changing two things: easing the economic blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, and bring about the cancellation of the ‘perimeter’. What is important is that since Cast Lead, the regional situation has drastically changed. Ehud Barak is more or less the only thing to remain from those days. Even the current US president, Barack Obama, is not George W. Bush, who wasn’t really interested in what Barak and Olmert were doing in Gaza. Of course, the greatest change is the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the international criticism directed at Israel after operation Cast Lead over the deaths of uninvolved civilians. Does anyone remember the Goldstone report?
Two other things: In the time that has passed since 2009, Iran has come closer to its nuclear bomb, and 2013 is now being defined as a decisive year with regards to the Iranian issue (this does not mean that the “decisiveness” won’t be postponed again for 2014 and onwards). On the other hand, the Iron Dome system became operational.
On Thursday, November 20, the General Staff was in the midst of a daily situation assessment discussion. Attending the meeting were the IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, and the head of the Operations Branch, Brig. Gen Yoav Har-Even, with more and more generals appeared around them and onboard the video conference screens (including the candidates for the position of next deputy chief of staff, Major Generals Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi, as well as current deputy Yair Naveh). The situation assessment dealt with the issue of seriousness of the DF’s plan for a ground effort in Gaza, and the possibility that the political echelon will instruct a ceasefire that evening. Reports came in from the field of commanders speaking of how their forces are being prepared daily for an operation, but the green light is not coming, while they are exposed to fire from the direction of the Gaza Strip. It was then that an initial report came in of a Fajr rocket that hit a building in Rishon LeZion.
The discussion carried on as usual, and the updates of the great miracle (or rather the proper implementation of the Homefront Command’s instructions, which prevented the loss of life) made their way to Gantz in notes. The reflex of all of those attending was to loosen the spring and take over the Gaza Strip, at least in part, and to teach Hamas a lesson. However, that didn’t happen.
Why not? Both because operation Pillar of Defense was greatly in the image of Lt. Gen. Gantz – temperate and not impassioned – and also because of the complexity of the situation. What is astounding is that throughout the operation. No pressure came from the military to the political echelon to approve an action that had not been approved. All shared the same concern that a strategic disaster could occur if the peace agreement with Egypt were to collapse.
The messages coming from Egypt and from the US were that a ground operation in the depths of the Gaza Strip was out of the question. The IDF was aware of the fact that operation Pillar of Defense was the first significant military operation in the post- Arab Spring era. The revolutions in the Arab world are not yet over, and they are still underway. Under the surface, a war is transpiring over the hegemony of the Arab world between the Shiites (Iran and Hezbollah) and their ally, Bashar al-Assad, and between the Sunni camp which includes Hamas, the Syrian rebels and Turkey, and the Islamic movements are rising in this camp.
Another scene from the war: on the evening of the second day of the operation, two suspicious figures appeared on the screen of the IAF’s command center, approaching near a house at the outskirts of Khan Yunis. There was grave concern that it was where weapons were being concealed. In normal times, the aircraft hovering above the two would have launched a missile without hesitation – but not this time. Those at the command center waited for the two people to be at a distance from the area and only then attacked. The tremendous subsequent blasts left no doubt that weapons were in fact concealed near the house. In this case, the Hamas operatives remained well because there was a small doubt among the fire operators that they might be innocent civilians rather than terrorists. The decision not to attack them indicates that the desire to avoid hurting uninvolved civilians at almost any cost was one of the cornerstones of the operation. In the end, only about a third of 200 casualties in the Gaza Strip were “innocent” according to military criteria, a figure which “passed” in international public opinion.
The desire to heavily pressure Hamas without causing anger among the international community, or the streets of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, was also at the hear of a dilemma. Even the minor decision to attack the fuel lines in the Rafiah tunnels was nearly spontaneous, and did not appear as a significant event in the early plans, but rather as “another option” in the general target list.
Throughout the week, Hamas operated firepower that exceeded what the IDF had anticipated – 150-250 rockets per day, including the fire to Tel Aviv, compared to 70-100 rockets foreseen from early predictions. One thing is certain: were it not for the Iron Dome system, which resulted in only 40 rockets actually landed in settled areas, the pressure on the political echelon to initiate a ground maneuver would have been much more significant – more than it would probably have been able to handle.
Weak in the knees At the end of the operation, Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is genuinely satisfied with the results of Pillar of Defense. True, he must put on the satisfied pose due to election and deterrence considerations, but he genuinely believes that Israel’s situation has actually improved. The big problem is that in complex reality in which the IDF operated, in which its force was limited, the operation was somewhat weak. After the death of Ahmed al-Jabri, the leaders of Hamas did not have to deal with a genuine sense of threat, while negotiating with Israel through Egyptian mediation.
Most of the IAF’s bombs were aimed for the sands of Gaza, where the weapon caches were hidden. It is best hot to have the heads in the sand: Hamas leaves operation Pillar of Defense with tremendous accomplishments. Its rule received international legitimacy. This was noted more than once this week, but more importantly, it reached political accomplishments through the use of military force. Its most significant achievements are the Israeli commitment not to operate any more in the “perimeter” and to ease the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip. Israel has not formally signed such a commitment, but it is certainly in the memorandum of understandings formed by Egypt, which will now be an address for the enforcement of the agreement, in cooperation with other countries that have not been decided upon.
Imagery has tremendous importance in the Middle East. From the Arab peninsula and all the way to Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, Hamas is perceived as the winner in this round. On our side, the feeling is much more acidulous. It is impossible to detach what happened this week from the Iranian connection. It may not be direct, but the handling of Gaza’s long-ranged weapons will do away with one headache for the IDF, in the event that a decision be made to attack in Iran in the next spring. In such a scenario, the IDF will primarily be forced to deal with long-range missiles from Iran and from Lebanon, even though according to a report in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, the attempts to renew Gaza’s weapon supplies through Iranian supplies already started during the operation. Even the most naïve among the senior IDF officials and those from the political echelon do not believe that the paper promising Israeli-Egyptian-US handling of the smuggling of weapons is worth something.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz quoted Brig. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot this week from when Eizenkot assessed that “Hamas is the one that would have liked to return to last Wednesday, half an hour before the operation.” Perhaps.