Going at it in Gaza: New Realities in an Old Conflict
Hamas needs a game changer, while Israel’s military doctrine is undergoing one. The effects of the Gaza blockade and the closure of the Egyptian border and many of the tunnels under it have driven Hamas’ decisions since the latest outbreak in the Hamas-Israel conflict on June 27. Hamas relies on its finances to help maintain its support in Gaza by providing support to the local populace, engaging in some degree of governance, and paying other local power brokers to remain on side. However, recently it has suffered from a severe curtailment of its cash flow. Hamas first attempted to solve its financial woes through the establishment of the Palestinian unity government. This, however, failed to alleviate the problem. The Hamas financial crisis has been building for over a year and the day before the first salvo of rockets from Gaza last month, workers hired by the Hamas administration in Gaza went on strike over a lack of pay. Now Hamas has made a bet that renewed war and subsequent ceasefire negotiations can accomplish what a unity government failed to achieve. The primary goal in these negotiations was a lessening of border restrictions and an end to the crackdown on smuggling, which might have rescued Hamas’s position in Gaza.
Egypt’s effective closure of the border also rendered resupply difficult for Hamas, providing additional motivation for Hamas’ decision to continue escalation. With the closed border and Egyptian activity against the tunnels that run underneath it, Hamas has had trouble adding to its considerable stockpile of long-range, heavy munitions, ammunition, and other military supplies or raising additional revenue from taxing commercial goods brought across or under the border. Without an alteration of the border situation, Hamas will see its effective military capabilities degrade over time. This removes the motivation for holding forces in reserve — Hamas might as well use what it has to achieve a result while it can. This explains Hamas’ willingness to employ its full range of capabilities, including UAVs, offensive tunneling, long-range rockets, and amphibious assault teams. The twin pressures of finance and supply explain why, at each phase of escalation, Hamas has made the decision to double down and go for broke. Early on in the current round of the conflict, a long-term ceasefire that addressed the border situation might have been sufficient to end things; however, as the pattern of Gazan rockets and Israeli strikes continues, for Hamas, such an agreement will no longer suffice.
Hamas is not immune to the logic of mission creep and escalation. These contribute to changes in the ceasefire terms Hamas will seek. As the clash escalates, Hamas needs a bigger visible payoff in the ceasefire negotiations to justify its actions and the damage suffered in Gaza. Whether a result of organizational chaos, indecision, or the logic of escalation, Hamas’ rejection of the terms of the original Egyptian ceasefire have raised the bar even higher. Should Hamas accept something resembling those terms, it would need to justify any damage to Gaza or loss of life that took place after the initial ceasefire attempt. Hamas would also have trouble projecting the image of being a victorious resistance organization and its reputation might suffer, especially relative to more radical competitors. The ineffectiveness of its operations against Israel has exacerbated this dynamic. Increasingly, Hamas risks looking impotent — its amphibious teams were killed, its infiltrations countered, and its rockets have yet to cause major damage to Israel, or disrupt its economy significantly. As a result, Hamas needs a long-term ceasefire that will, at the very least, allow it to save face as well as resolve its financial and logistical problems. In short, because of its logistics, finances, and the real potential of waning support in Gaza, if Hamas does not want to lose big, it must score a big win.
To achieve a big win, Hamas has few remaining options but to hope for a major Israeli incursion. Like a forward trying to draw a foul, Hamas successfully drew Israel into an invasion. The general rule of these situations is the bigger the fight, the bigger the ceasefire compromise. Knowing that Israel does not wish to remain in an indefinite reoccupation of Gaza and that a large-scale invasion may erode the relative support Israel has received from the international community in the operation thus far, Hamas could hope that after an Israeli invasion, the border might open and money might again flow into its coffers, with Hamas being perceived as a victor for surviving.
For Israel, the current operations in Gaza represent an experiment with its military doctrine. Since Chayim Laskov’s committee of 1949, Israeli military engagement (at least in larger operations) has centered on the principle of avoiding battles of attrition in favor of either large-scale pre-emptive operations or rapid build-ups to a decisive counter offensive. In either case, the doctrine has centered on rapidly gaining and maintaining initiative, transferring combat into the enemy’s territory, and avoiding an attritional conflict by keeping operations short and decisive. This has not been the case in the current Gaza operation. The traditional pattern of escalation reflected Laskov’s doctrine was simple: Militant operations began and Israel responded with limited strikes. Eventually, the militants inflicted damage sufficient to cause economic impact, necessitating a response or driving Israeli public opinion toward demanding, either of which resulted in an Israeli mobilization. Once the army mobilized, a countdown began wherein Israel needed to launch a decisive operation or demobilize before the economic cost of mobilization became too high. The results of any ensuing major ground offensive required must be sufficient to justify the scope and cost. Two factors delayed this inexorable drive. The first is the Iron Dome missile interception system, which has prevented loss of life and significant economic damage to the center of the country. The second mitigating factor has been the increased concentration of Israel’s economic core in the center of the country over the last several years. This means that the areas most affected by rocket fire (roughly consisting of the western half of Israel’s southern district) are more peripheral to Israel’s economy, which has lessened the economic impact of the conflict.
Together, these factors have allowed for a new form of engagement, one in which attrition and time worked for Israel and not against it. Before July 8, the pattern looked typical: Hamas struck and Israel responded with limited airstrikes. But then Israel went off script. Israel contained itself to limited strikes long after it normally would. In previous operations, Israel would have undertaken both a significant expansion of targets and possibly preliminary ground operations far earlier in the conflict. However, under its current operational experiment, Israel traded initiative for strategic and diplomatic benefit, allowing Hamas to maintain the operational initiative to determine the longevity of temporary ceasefires and truces as well as the tempo of the conflict. In exchange, Israel gained a diplomatic advantage in that it could argue that it displayed restraint in the face of rocket attacks and that Hamas acted as the aggressor. It also gained a strategic advantage. If Israel’s objectives are as they appear–to either reduce Hamas’s capabilities or its motivation for continued offensive operations – then, as long as operations remained in their previous format, Israel could have conceivably scored a victory by outlasting Hamas without escalating the situation further. This was especially the case in light of Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire. In doing so it would continue its departure from its classical doctrine. This, however, was unlikely and a number of factors caused the return to a more operationally offensive posture likely.
The longer conflict continued, the fewer significant targets Israel had left to hit. As it worked through its strike list, the pre-identified targets that remained were those harder to reach or those that ran the risk of higher civilian casualties. This is not to say that Israel would have run out of targets entirely. Every time a medium or long-range rocket was launched from Gaza, a new target of opportunity presented itself. However, these targets were only intermittently available and waiting for them and other targets of opportunity resulted in a greatly reduced operational tempo. Such a reduction provided decreasing satisfaction to an Israeli public under fire, which increasingly called for some sort of ground operation. Additionally, the reduction in strikes would have made it harder for the Israeli government to claim that they have accomplished their mission in Gaza, making it harder for the Israeli government to justify holding back from major incursions into Gaza in future flare ups. Finally, despite its lack of success, Hamas’ continued employment of tunnel-based offensive infiltration provided a significant threat to Israel’s internal security. Together these factors contributed to Israel’s decision to launch a ground operation. The question remains as to how the current ground incursion will develop and what effect it might have on Israel’s experiment with operational restraint.
Although there are as of yet no clear answers to these questions, there are strong indications of what may come. Presently, the ground incursion is concentrated along the border areas where Hamas’ infiltration tunnels originate. At this point, a major ground operation that penetrates deeply into Gaza and involves a large number of Israeli forces operating for an extended duration strategically suits Hamas more than Israel. Although Israel might be able to destroy many of Hamas’ capabilities in such an operation, it would need a bigger objective to justify the scale of such an operation to its own population and the international community. It would then find itself facing the same problem currently facing Hamas: Any ceasefire agreement achieved must be significant enough to account for the resources and lives lost. A maximalist objective such as destroying Hamas will be impossible to achieve, nor will it be possible to completely end rocket and mortar fire against Israel. Although some sectors in the political establishment might call for occupation, Israel lacks the desire to reoccupy Gaza indefinitely. Moreover, recent Israeli operational decisions suggest that no such occupation is in the cards. The reserves mobilized are likely insufficient for such an operation. So how will the current operation play out?
The current offensive is likely to take one of two forms or perhaps combine them. In the first case, Israel might continue to make shallow penetrations into Gaza. Such penetrations would serve several purposes, reducing the threat of short-range munitions and tunnels, as well as allowing Israel to destroy militant infrastructure in those areas. It would help satisfy domestic opinion without calling up more reserves and provide a launch pad from which to develop further operations if needed. Finally, it would give Israel an even stronger position in negotiations and increase the pressure in Gaza on Hamas to agree to a ceasefire. However, given the must-win situation Hamas finds itself in, it is unlikely that this pressure will accomplish much.
The other option available to Israel is to undertake a series of raids penetrating deeper into Gaza, destroying targets and then withdrawing. The benefits of such an operation are similar to shallow penetrations. However, they increase the likelihood that Hamas will look impotent and the ability of the Israeli military to erode Hamas capabilities. That said, both types of ground operations carry the risks of significant civilian casualties and Israeli military casualties – as seen in the fighting which resulted from the Hamas ambushes in Shejaiyah. Should Israel suffer more such casualties then the domestic pressure to greatly expand the operations will increase and with it the likelihood of a major operation will grow. If Israel’s experiment with a defensive doctrine based on attrition and limited response is to be repeated in the future, Israel needs to see the benefits in the present. So far the strategy seems to have paid dividends in continued international support, or at least a lack of strong international condemnation of Israel’s operations. If this translates into a favorable ceasefire and period of quiet or continued support as Israel launches expanded ground operations, then it is likely this will become the new Israeli doctrine for dealing with rocket fire. If not, then Israel will return to its policy of the last six decades, something that neither Israel, nor the international community, nor the Palestinian people, should particularly want to see.
Jacob Stoil is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University and a DPhil candidate at University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History of Warfare from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Jacob specializes in military history and strategic studies with research and publications focusing on the Middle East and Horn of Africa as well as the use of indigenous forces.
Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi