TEL AVIV — Despite domestic pressure to escalate its fight against Gaza-launched rockets, Israel’s agreement last week to a U.S.- and Egyptian-brokered cease-fire marked a leap of faith in the deterrent effect of the surgical standoff attack.
Compared with the so-called “crazy landlord” strategy employed in the six-week Lebanon war in 2006 and the three-week Gaza operation four years ago, a cool and calculating landlord presided over the eight-day Pillar of Defense campaign, which ended Nov. 21 without a ground war and with historically low casualties.
There’s an expression in Hebrew that aptly describes the strategy put to the test in recently concluded combat. It’s called “mo’ach, lo ko’ach,” meaning brains, not brawn.
While Gazan casualty figures remain in dispute, with Israel claiming 120 killed and 900 wounded, compared with the 163 killed and 1,200 listed by the Hamas Health Ministry as wounded, even the higher estimates pale next to to the 1,400 killed and thousands wounded in Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead campaign.
At the end of hostilities, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it operated against 1,500 targets, including 19 command centers, 30 senior operatives, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, and dozens of long-range rocket launch sites.
More than 1,500 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip during the fighting, 875 of which landed in open areas. Of the 573 rockets designated by Israel’s Iron Dome system as threats to life or property, there were 421 interceptions, a success rate of about 85 percent.
Impact on Deterrence
“Our objectives were achieved in full. Hamas received a painful blow,” claimed Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as the truce took effect. Barak cited strengthened deterrence as the leading objective.
But skeptics warn of the heavy price Israel will pay when Barak’s stated strategy of “maximum casualties to terrorists, minimum casualties to civilians” ends up weakening Israeli deterrence. They note that despite an intensive standoff attack, Hamas-based militants fired only a fraction of their estimated 10,000-strong rocket arsenal. And instead of uprooting or paralyzing the regime in Gaza, critics say Hamas gained diplomatic legitimacy through the negotiated cease-fire, despite its designation by the U.S. and European Union-as a terrorist organization.
As for Israel, any diplomatic legitimacy and security perks to be gained by heeding international calls to end the fight without a ground war will be meaningless, so the argument goes, if the other side is not sufficiently deterred.
“Those Islamic extremists in Gaza — exponentially more so than the secular leadership still clinging to power in the West Bank — are influenced only by death and destruction,” many here said.
“If the other side does not fear for their very survival, they cannot be deterred,” a former senior Israeli military commander said.
Skeptics point to the five rockets launched from Gaza barely an hour after the cease-fire went into effect.
“Surgical strikes have been extremely effective, but it remains to be seen if the scalpel alone can deter the other side,” the former commander said last week.
At a news conference announcing Israel’s agreement to halt the fighting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the concerns of those pressing for escalation.
“I know that there are citizens who expected much harsher military activity, and it could very well be that such action will be required,” he said. “But at this time, the correct thing for ... Israel is to maximize the opportunity for an extended cease-fire.”
Netanyahu attributed his decision to strategic changes sweeping the region, and alluded to a greater task at hand in Iran and White House pledges of additional support.
Tactical Targets, Strategic Message
Retired Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, a former IDF spokesman who directed Israel’s public relations strategy during the Cast Lead operation, said circumstances drive strategy. Operation Pillar of Defense was not a war, he said, but a “punishing operation.” Historically low enemy casualties should not necessarily affect deterrence in a negative way, he said.
“There’s a direct correlation between the level of firepower and international legitimacy, just as there often is linkage between the effects of firepower and deterrence,” Benayahu said. “But that’s simplistic; there’s more to the story.”
In the previous Gaza campaign, Israel’s leaders felt compelled to bring in ground forces to ease “the trauma” of the Lebanon war, he said.
“In Cast Lead, Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorists were our operational targets, but our strategic message was directed to Hezbollah [in Lebanon],” he said. “This time around, our strategic message was directed at Egypt, Iran and other players in the region.”
According to the security strategist, deterrence will be measured by how Iran internalizes the technological and intelligence superiority shown in the eight-day fight, as well as Egypt’s resolve in working with the U.S. and others to enforce the cease-fire and stem the flow of weapons smuggled into Gaza from Sinai.
An IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said deterrence will be measured in the coming weeks and months and should not be judged by residual rockets launched in the days following the cease-fire.
When asked whether the operation’s comparatively low death toll could sap deterrence, as many here argue, he replied, “You don’t need to kill civilians in order to strengthen deterrence. That’s exactly what the other side hopes to achieve.
“They know we don’t intentionally target innocents, but their entire strategy is based on exploiting these poor people. They’re counting on high casualties in order to delegitimize us. So why play into their hands?” said Mordechai, an Arabic-speaking former infantryman and intel officer with years of operational experience in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Don’t be misled by the low civilian casualty figures. Once Hamas leaders and their remaining combatants emerge from underground and witness the damage wrought from our surgical strikes, they’ll internalize the heavy price paid for their latest escalation.”
Mordechai’s intelligence background influenced a revamp of the informational strategy used in planning and executing Operation Pillar of Defense. To begin, Israel chose a name that resonated well with international audiences, unlike Cast Lead, with its harsh connotations when translated from Hebrew. More important, unlike in the earlier operation, where journalists had to petition Israel’s Supreme Court for permission to cross into Gaza, the IDF provided reasonable access to events taking place on both sides of the border.
Mordechai’s office also embedded public relations specialists in IDF intelligence and operational directorates, with immediate access to information of unfolding events. In parallel, the IDF took full advantage of Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and other new media tools.
“We took a strategic decision that in this campaign, we had nothing to hide,” Mordechai said.