Operation Pillar of Defense:
In Support of a Ground Offensive
by Prof. Efraim Inbar and Dr. Max Singer
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 186, November 19, 2012
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel needs to send IDF ground forces into Gaza to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas and other Islamic terror groups. While Israel may pay a high diplomatic price for its actions, the longer it waits the greater the political obstacles will be to actions that limit future Palestinian and Arab attacks on Israel. If fears such as the changed political environment of the Middle East deter Israel from destroying Hamas’ military force now, the Arabs will only escalate their attacks on Israel. An immediate and strong Israeli response is necessary to ensure the Jewish state’s ability to stand against the rising tide of Islamist militancy.
For nearly a week, Israel has been under attack from terrorist elements in Gaza, primarily Hamas. As the Israeli air force and navy respond with surgical, targeted strikes on Hamas facilities, the government is weighing the possibility of ordering a ground offensive too.
In our view, an armored push into Gaza in order to deal the Hamas military wing a decisive blow is necessary. From a strategic, long-term perspective, Israel cannot avoid confronting Hamas head-on, and must take action sooner rather than later. For Israel to restore quiet to its borders and ensure its survival in the new Middle East, Arab governments and terror organizations must feel that it would be a mistake for them to militarily challenge Israel. Israel must demonstrate that even in the face of great political pressures it is strong enough and willing, when necessary, to take vigorous action.
While strong Israeli action carries serious risks, strength and victory also bring many benefits. In the current and developing environment Israel has no safe or good choices; it will have to take dangerous actions. Acting later will be more dangerous than acting now, and sooner or later Israel will be forced to act.
The Imperative to Act Now – Israel in a New Middle East
For some time, we have advocated the need to respond to attacks from Gaza with a large-scale military operation. We said that if no such action was taken, the attacks against Israel would surely increase, and indeed they have. Gaza is small enough for Israel to destroy most of the infrastructure and the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other terrorist organizations that are based there. The goal of such a ground offensive would be to restore deterrence and signal an Israeli determination to battle the rising Islamist forces in the region. By acting sooner in Gaza, Israel will also greatly reduce the missile retaliation it would face if and when it strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Current political conditions seem to weigh in Israel’s favor for an incursion into Gaza now. Hamas is politically weakened, and most of the Arab world is busy with pressing domestic issues, or with other crises such as Syria.
Today we can again say that attacks on Israel will surely further increase if the IDF does not now take the drastic and dangerous action involved in a full-scale military invasion of Gaza. A smaller operation, akin to Cast Lead, will create at most another short postponement of attacks on Israeli civilians and will be followed by further escalation.
When its environment is benign, a country should act prudently and cautiously avoid trouble. But Israel already lives in a different kind of environment, and there is every reason to expect that this environment will become more hostile in the next few years, as the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in more countries and consolidates its position in Egypt, and as the West sinks deeper into modes of appeasement. In particular there is likely to be a higher cost to an attack on Hamas in the future as the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt strengthens its ties with the terror group.
If Israel tries to “accommodate” the current nasty diplomatic environment, it will gradually see its security eroded. Instead, Israel must boldly protect its interests and make sure that its enemies are afraid of potentially devastating consequences. As long as they believe that political pressures prevent the Jewish state from harming them, these enemies will inexorably and assuredly increase their attacks on Israel. This is due partly to natural strategy and partly to the temptation in each country to seek internal political gain by acting against Israel. With growing Muslim Brotherhood power, and the growing partial rivalry between the Brotherhood and Salafi jihadists in Egypt, the political pressure on Cairo to act against Israel will grow.
Operation Pillar of Defense – A Need to Expand the Campaign
Israel will pay a political price even for limited action beyond the current air campaign. What Israel needs to do is to make it temporarily impossible for missiles to be fired from Gaza. Such a clear-cut victory needs boots on the ground. Indeed, Israeli society is displaying great social resilience, and supports the continuation of the military effort, including a ground offensive against Hamas.
Deterrence will be created if the military branches of Hamas and the PIJ are decimated. In addition to deterrence, important practical military benefits will be gained by destroying the physical and human infrastructure that Hamas, PIJ, and other organizations have built up in Gaza, even though such infrastructure can be and will likely be rebuilt.
Combing through Gaza to nab members of Hamas and other terror groups will take perhaps several weeks. Many of these top officials are in hiding, making it clear that they are unwilling or unable to fight. This operation can be conducted only by forces on the ground.
It is likely that Israel will face very great pressure, even from the US, to desist from such an operation. Israel should resist such pressure. It should explain to the US administration and to the public what its objectives in Gaza are – the destruction of the military organizations that are threatening and attacking Israel – and the necessity of staying in Gaza for the weeks required to achieve these objectives, which will postpone the next crisis as long as possible.
If Israel is diplomatically forced to abort the effort before achieving its goals it will pay the full political price and get only a fraction of the benefits it needs in return. In fact, Israel will pay a greater political price for an attack that is prematurely cut short than it would if it were able to complete the job, no matter how much it would suffer in the court of public opinion.
Of course, a ground offensive runs the risk of getting bogged down in the Gaza quagmire and of costing Israel unexpectedly heavy troop losses. Obviously, the IDF needs to develop and effectively execute a plan designed to avoid these pitfalls. Our point is that from a strategic, long-term perspective, Israel cannot wait any longer and must confront Hamas head-on.
The bottom line is that Israel is surrounded by enemies who will spare no efforts to kill as many Israelis as possible. Israel cannot respond effectively to each small attack, and the only way to prevent small attacks is to make the enemies believe that they cannot tell when Israel will respond to a small attack with a blow that the enemy is really afraid of. What the enemy is afraid of is the loss of power, and perhaps some of the terrorist leaders are also afraid of being killed. Therefore, an escalation of conflict via a ground operation, an idea that most of the international community opposes, is nevertheless necessary.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Dr. Max Singer is a founder of the Hudson Institute and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.