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Can Israel Restore Deterrence?

With Israeli aircraft pounding selected targets in the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops preparing for a ground incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, now three days old, is beginning to look a lot like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in the winter of 2008-2009 in which the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip, demolished some Hamas infrastructure, and then left. That operation was a success in the limited but real sense that it brought some respite from rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. But, as Daniel Byman notes at Foreign Affairs, “As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more — over 800 before the current operation began.”

Clearly that is an unsustainable state of affairs. No country could possibly tolerate its soil being attacked with rockets and not act militarily to defend its citizens. Those who criticize the Israeli action–already one hears the tired old accusations of “disproportionate response” (what would a proportionate response look like–lobbing random missiles into Gaza indiscriminately?)–have no better alternative to offer beyond sucking it up and living with terror raining down over the southern part of the country. But however justified and necessary, Operation Pillar of Defense is unlikely to achieve results much more lasting than those of Cast Lead. Hamas has shown it will not cease and desist from its attacks because of an occasional Israeli counteroffensive and it has shown that it can easily replace militant commanders such as Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday.

The only thing that could possibly stop Hamas from regenerating after this current round of fighting is if Israeli troops stay in Gaza and maintain some degree of security, as they have done in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield dealt a major blow to the Second Intifada in 2002. Israel has been helped too by the emergence in the West Bank after Yasir Arafat’s death of more moderate leadership, especially Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Unfortunately, neither a reoccupation nor the emergence of moderate leaders is likely in Gaza.

Ever since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it has had scant desire to return. No doubt Prime Minister Netanyahu is afraid of the international opprobrium–especially from the United States under the leadership of Barack Obama–that “reoccupation” of Gaza would bring. It could also bring major headaches by exposing Israeli troops to the kind of guerrilla attacks they faced in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000. As for the possibility of a more “moderate” Hamas emerging–that seems even more farfetched. Hamas is and remains an organization dedicated to Israel’s eradication in a holy war.

The best that Israel can hope for is to reestablish a measure of deterrence and win a few years of relative quiet. The model, in many ways, is the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which was widely derided at the time as a fiasco but which convinced Hezbollah to refrain from attacking across Israel’s northern border. The years since have been remarkably quiet in the north. Although Hezbollah has rebuilt its strength and then some–it has seized effective control of the Lebanese government and stockpiled more than 50,000 missiles–it has shied away from fighting Israel. It is not, for example, taking advantage of Israel’s battle with Hamas to launch a second front in the north. The experience of 2006 suggests that even terrorist organizations animated by a martyrdom complex can be rational enough for deterrence to work. Israel must hope it can achieve similar results in the south.



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