Israeli border guards fire tear gas canisters towards Palestinian protestors during clashes in the center of the divided West Bank city of Hebron on Nov. 19. (Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — With some 70,000 Israeli troops poised for prospective ground war in Gaza, political leaders here are again grappling with the costs versus benefits of supplementing standoff strikes with boots on the ground.
The old argument of “F-16 versus M16” — coined by retired Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, former Israeli military chief of staff— will likely be settled in the coming days, if not sooner.
But unlike Israel’s last combined air-sea and ground campaign to protect the homefront from Gaza-launched rockets, this time proponents of standoff-only attack have a new arrow in their quiver: the nearly 85 percent effective rate of Iron Dome intercepting batteries.
Commanders from Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation surmise that had then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert been able to protect the homefront with an active defense system like Iron Dome, he would not have opted to supplement eight days of largely precision standoff strikes with a grueling, two-week ground war.
“In Cast Lead, we didn’t have the breathing space provided by Iron Dome. We didn’t have the full benefits of precise and selective early warning and we didn’t have a disciplined homefront,” a former top Israeli military commander told Defense News.
“Then they didn’t have a choice. The political echelon determined that the only way to take care of the rockets, impose quiet and bolster deterrence was through a combination of F-16s and M16s. But now, it’s a different story,” he said.
According to the former commander, Israel has not yet realized the maximum effect of airstrikes.
“We haven’t yet squeezed out the full effectiveness. If conditions allow us another two or three days of intensified and punishing standoff attacks, we should be able to end this without getting back into Gaza.”
1,400 Targets Destroyed
At the end of day six of Israel’s so-called Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli military says it attacked some 1,400 targets throughout Gaza, most of them from the air, with support from Israel Navy missile boats.
Attack operations started with the aerial assassination of Hamas Military Commander Ahmed al-Jabari, followed by strategic assaults on most of the 60-kilometer range Fajr-5 missiles smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Iran. By late last week, after hundreds of attacks on weapon storage sites, including underground stockpiles of 40-kilometer-range Grad rockets, Israel stepped up targeting operations against command posts, communications centers and public buildings viewed as symbols of the Hamas government.
In the past few days, in parallel with continued attacks on weapon sites and hunter-killer operations against rocket-launching squads and other so-called targets of opportunity, Israel began making phone calls to residents of specific buildings, warning them to evacuate before striking private homes of Hamas leaders.
As of late Nov. 19, Gaza’s Ministry of Health had reported 95 killed, 26 of them children, in the standoff attacks. And while the ministry does not differentiate among militant fighters targeted by Israel and uninvolved innocents, the death toll from 1,400 attacks appears to mark a new record for precision strike operations.
In comparison to the previous air war in Gaza, in which precision munitions were used in 81 percent of aerial attacks, 140 militants along with another 37 innocents were killed in just the first day of airstrikes.
In a Nov. 19 interview, Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities in the West Bank, acknowledged that casualties thus far appear to be much lower than Israel’s last war in Gaza.
“Yes, the casualties are lower than ever before. But even if it’s true that Israel has changed its tactics — which I don’t believe — most Palestinians will not appreciate it. They’ll judge from their prior experiences with Israeli brutality,” said Qumsiyeh.
“What we’re seeing is a historic precedent for precision-strike operations, and it proves that the strategy of maximum damage with minimum victims is working,” said retired Israel Air Force Brig. Gen. Assaf Agmon, director of the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air & Space Studies.
“Each target is checked multiple times, the weaponry is carefully selected and the intelligence is persistent and precise. If they’re able to keep this up, it appears that operational objectives can be secured with our legitimacy intact without the need for ground forces,” said Agmon.
Nevertheless, experts and analysts warn that the option for ground invasion remains very much alive, and could be triggered if just one Hamas-launched missile manages to leak through the Iron Dome and extract heavy Israeli casualties.
“We can’t get addicted to Iron Dome and we also need to remember that a 70,000-strong ground force cannot remain waiting at the border indefinitely,” another former Israeli commander warned.
According to the retired major general, Israel’s ground option will remain viable for only a few more days before economic and other pressures force either a political green light for a ground invasion or cancellation of reserve call-up orders.
“Several things can still happen that will drag this into a much bloodier story,” he said.