Editorial: A Tactical Success

Colin Rubenstein

Israel’s eight-day “Operation Pillar of Defence”, which ended with a ceasefire agreement on November 21, was a limited operation with a primary objective – to staunch the flow of rockets launched from Gaza and landing on southern Israel’s cities and villages.

Some 764 rockets had struck Israel from the beginning of this year until the onset of the operation, 150 in the four days before the operation commenced. A further 1,506 rockets struck Israel during the operation itself, bringing the year’s total to more than 2,200.

For the operation to be considered a complete success, that number must not creep much higher.

Much like the calm that descended on northern Israel following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Israeli Government is hoping that Hamas, like Hezbollah, will be convinced that the launch of even a single rocket against Israel would risk provoking a powerful response.

Israel also delivered a message to Hamas that its increasing acceptance into the Arab world, particularly by the new Egyptian Islamist government, but also by Qatar and Turkey, would not provide Hamas with cover or immunity against Israeli retaliation.

In addition, besides Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing who was successfully targeted on the first day of the operation, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) killed six other top Hamas figures, dealing a significant setback to the terror group’s ability to plot and carry out attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets. The IDF also unquestionably delivered a serious blow to Hamas’ rocket arsenal, a reversal which will take months, if not years, to fully recover from.

The success of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defence system, which intercepted 421 rockets, saving untold numbers of lives, was one of the highlights of the campaign. Hezbollah and its patron Iran are now on notice that their rockets no longer represent the same level of threat that they had previously.

Palestinian and Israeli sources are in agreement that a majority of Palestinian fatalities from the operation, said to number approximately 170, were comprised of enemy combatants. Given that the IDF struck over 1,500 strategic Palestinian targets over the campaign and the fact that Hamas had embedded its rocket launchers in densely populated areas, the death toll for Palestinian civilians – while always deeply regrettable – must be seen as remarkably low. This is a tribute to the many measures – phone calls, leaflets, warning shots, abortion of missions risking civilian casualties, etc. – that Israel instituted to prevent such casualties.

It bears repeating that the fundamental responsibility for all civilian deaths in Gaza ultimately rests with Hamas itself, which alone made the decision to fire rockets and permit others militant groups to do likewise, often from densely populated civilian areas. They did so knowing that eventually, even Israel’s unmatched restraint would have to yield to a large-sale military response in defence of Israel’s civilian population. Every sovereign nation on Earth would do the same.

By brokering the ceasefire, Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi faces the biggest test of his leadership to date. His ability to curb the provocations of Hamas – an offshoot of his own Muslim Brotherhood – and other groups and bring regional calm and stability that serves Egypt’s national interest, will be key.

Should Morsi deliver to Gaza the kind of calm that Israel has seen from its Lebanese border since 2006 and the Syrian border from 1973 until only recently, it would vindicate those analysts, including some US policy advisers, who have argued that some good may come out of the rise of political Islamism in the Arab Spring after all. Of course, Morsi himself challenged any such thesis by using his moment of diplomatic triumph to issue a decree giving himself dictatorial powers.

A critical test will be whether the flow of mainly Iranian arms to Hamas through tunnels under the Egyptian border can be staunched. To its credit, the Egyptian Government has been improving its efforts on this front and is now engaging with Israel in a more pragmatic manner. The US also promised Israel to make assisting in this effort a priority as part of the final ceasefire.

But despite these positive signs, in cold analytical terms, prospects of lasting quiet from Gaza seem dim.

Nearly four years ago, Operation Cast Lead, which included a ground war in Gaza, ended with a ceasefire agreement nearly identical to the one signed on November 21, but in the interim, rocket attacks have slowly but progressively escalated.

It’s unlikely the latest agreement will be any more permanent, but what is certain is that the continuation of the wide-reaching support Israel received while under fire, from the US, the EU and other Western allies – including bipartisan support from both the Government and Opposition here in Australia – can only increase the chances for desperately needed calm – to the mutual benefit of Israelis and Palestinians.

It is only in that atmosphere of calm – when Israel is secure and with Palestinians focussed on building their independent economy while educating their people for co-existence – that renewed final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians will have any real chance to genuinely advance the goal of a two-state outcome.

In addition, perhaps the most pressing reason for Israel to agree to the ceasefire was to retain US and Western support to confront its main challenge – Iran’s sprint toward nuclear weapons capability and the need to retain a credible military option.

Pillar of Defence appears to have achieved its tactical ends. But the only strategic answer, as many commentators have pointed out, is a lasting, final peace.

Unfortunately, this appears impossible as long as Hamas controls Gaza, and remains rejectionist and bitterly divided from the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Thus, sadly, while the eventual goal of a lasting two-state outcome must never be forgotten nor ignored, tactical victories like this one are the best that Israel can hope for in the short term.