A power plant worker cuts through twisted burned out metal near damaged fuel tanks in the south of Gaza City. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP)
TEL AVIV — The latest Israel-Hamas truce expires at midnight on Wednesday and it’s still unclear whether Operation Protective Edge, now in its 37th day, will resume with greater intensity or come to an end.
“It’s possible that this operation has not concluded ... we are fully prepared to continue the mission,” Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, told officers Wednesday.
With Egyptian-brokered truce talks at an apparent impasse, Israel recalled its delegation from Cairo Wednesday evening. In parallel, the government drafted several thousand reservists and was bolstering its active duty force strength poised at the border.
By 10 p.m. Wednesday, limited Gaza-launched attacks on Israeli border communities appeared to signal collapse of the cease-fire, the 10th in the ongoing campaign.
But as of this writing, because there were no casualties or damage, the IDF was exercising restraint.
Since Israel withdrew its ground troops from Gaza eight days ago, political leaders and officers here have been doing their best to claim success, despite seemingly disproportionate costs.
So far, Israel has lost 65 soldiers, more than six times the 10 killed in Cast Lead, its last Gaza incursion in late 2008-2009.
And while both operations involved complex ground maneuvers in heavily built up areas against snipers, anti-tank missiles and threats from concealed launchers and explosive-rigged tunnels, officers here insist Protective Edge and Cast Lead are vastly different wars.
“The threat was different then. They planned differently and learned their lessons,” said Brig. Gen. Eyal Zelinger, IDF chief communications officer. “But it doesn’t negate the enormous operational achievements from this operation.”
Zelinger maintained that Protective Edge demanded “completely different warfare,” primarily due to the unanticipated extent of the tunnel threat.
“Because of this huge network of tunnels, we had to maneuver differently. If we did things incorrectly, all of Gaza could collapse,” he said.
According to Zelinger, the IDF was much better prepared this time with the means and methods for waging joint networked warfare.
“It’s the first time where [nearly] the entire IDF active duty ground forces were fully connected with all other air, sea and intelligence elements. … We didn’t have that capability in Cast Lead, where we all shared a common picture; where all sensors were connected to all shooters,” he said.
When pressed to explain the increase in soldiers killed, Zelinger replied: “All losses are painful, but it’s a war. Imagine in this reality against this complex threat what would have happened here if we didn’t have this network that allowed us to know where the enemy was at all times.”
Brig. Gen. Roy Riftin, IDF chief artillery officer, said it was too early to compare Protective Edge to Cast Lead, where he served as chief of staff of the IDF’s J5 Planning Branch.
“The enemy behaved differently this time. His readiness to engage directly was much more pronounced. … He learned from us and tried to adapt lessons,” Riftin said.
Riftin estimated the IDF Artillery Corps fired some 34,000 rounds in the current campaign, half of them smoke rounds required to shield and screen maneuvering ground forces.
In contrast, IDF gunners fired some 7,000 rounds in Cast Lead.
“In Cast Lead, we didn’t have a mature doctrine; we didn’t have the technology, tactics and procedures in place that we have today,” he said.
Like Zelinger, Riftin credited the IDF’s Tzayad digital command-and-control network for a huge jump in combat effectiveness.
“Again, it’s too early to assess, but my preliminary impression is that without Tzayad, we couldn’t have reached the extent of the fire we were able to employ…. Not even close to it,” Riftin said.
Amir Oren, senior defense analyst at Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper, cautioned against comparing the two Gaza incursions. “You can’t compare today’s oranges to apples from years ago,” he said.
“Cast Lead was conducted under different circumstances against a virtual deadline. Obama’s inauguration was around the corner and Israel was involved in a heated election campaign,” Oren said.
Nevertheless, he disputed premature claims of operational success or failure to recognize achievements of Hamas. “You should measure Hamas against its capabilities and intentions, and here it is clear that they gained enormously since the earlier campaign,” Oren told Defense News.
He criticized Israeli leaders and officers who sought to measure operational achievements by blows sustained by the other side.
“For many in the IDF, emerging ‘victorious’ from the engagement means we killed more of the enemy and that we did not retreat. This is a US Marine Corps mentality. But Gaza is not Iwo Jima or Normandy. You can’t advance 1,500 meters and call it victory,” Oren said.
In a Tuesday visit to an Israel Navy base, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Hamas and other enemy organizations suffered a much “heavier blow” compared with the 22-day Cast Lead operation.
“Protective Edge has still not ended ... but there is no doubt that the damage is immense,” he said.
Ya’alon cited Israeli targeting of “property, operation centers, buildings, launching sites, training centers, their bank, their government buildings and so forth.”
But Israel, too, is paying a heavy price for the “damage” cited by Ya’alon as benchmarks of battlefield success.
Israel’s high command is already gearing up for external and domestic commissions of inquiry over perceived use of disproportionate force.
Israel claims some 900 of the more than 1,800 Gazans killed were enemy combatants, but has yet to release a detailed list. In Cast Lead, Israel claimed a similar ratio of enemy combatants to innocents killed.
Meanwhile, Brazil, a key arms export market, recalled its ambassador early in the fight and has threatened to suspend defense trade. Britain, Spain and several other countries are mulling a reassessment of strategic cooperation and defense trade ties.
And then there’s the budgetary impact of Protective Edge. Israel’s Defense Ministry and Finance Ministry are engaged in intense discussions over which organization should cover direct defense-related war costs, estimated here at nearly 9 billion shekels (US $2.58 billion). ■