Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted desperately to avoid a ground operation in Gaza. He ordered it only 10 days into Operation Protective Edge, following the failure of two separate cease-fire proposals that Israel accepted and honored–an Egyptian one that Hamas simply ignored and a UN-sponsored one that it swiftly abrogated. Yet now that he’s been forced into it, it would be a criminal waste to confine it to the very limited goal he set.
Netanyahu’s goal–destroying the network of cross-border tunnels Hamas has built to carry out attacks in Israel–is undeniably important. It was through such tunnel that Hamas kidnapped Gilad Shalit in 2006 and subsequently traded him for 1,027 vicious terrorists, some of whom have since resumed killing; Israel has good reason to seek to prevent a repeat. But destroying the tunnels will do nothing to prevent a repeat of the kind of rocket war Israel has already suffered three times in the nine years since its 2005 Gaza pullout, and it simply can’t afford to keep having such wars every few years: While Iron Dome and extensive civil defense measures have kept Israeli casualties near zero, the economic costs are already nontrivial, and as David Rosenberg noted in Haaretz last week, one lucky hit on, say, Ben-Gurion Airport or Intel’s production facility could suffice to send the economy into a tailspin. Thus Israel must seize the opportunity to completely dismantle Hamas’s rocket capabilities–because for the first time since it quit Gaza, there’s a real chance Hamas won’t be able to rebuild them.
It’s impossible to stop Hamas from launching another war without dismantling its capabilities; recently history amply proves that deterrence doesn’t work. The significant damage Hamas suffered in both previous Gaza wars, in 2009 and 2012, didn’t stop it from launching new wars a few years later, and there’s no reason to think the current war–which has done it no more damage than the previous ones–will produce a different result.
Nor is there any way to destroy Hamas’s capabilities other than by a ground operation. Even according to the Israel Air Force’s possibly over-optimistic statistics, the intensive airstrikes of Operation Protective Edge’s first week destroyed fewer than 3,000 of Hamas’s estimated 9,000 rockets; most of the rest can’t be destroyed by air, either because their location is unknown or because they’re stored in places likes schools and hospitals that can’t be bombed without massive civilian casualties. During that same week, Hamas fired about 1,000 rockets at Israel. Thus it has some 5,000 left, including hundreds capable of hitting Tel Aviv and beyond–more than enough for another war or three. And it can easily manufacture even more, since for the same reasons, Israel has bombed only about half its rocket production facilities. Eliminating its capabilities thus requires a search-and-destroy ground operation: capturing and interrogating terrorists to find out where arsenals and factories are located, searching facilities like hospitals that can’t be bombed, etc.
Clearly, such an operation wouldn’t be cost-free, and in previous years, Israel saw little point in paying the price, because Hamas could easily replenish its arsenal. But that’s no longer true. The Egyptian government, with strong public support, has been systematically destroying Hamas’s cross-border smuggling tunnels into Sinai over the past year, having finally grasped that the two-way terror traffic through these tunnels threatens Egypt’s security at least as much as Israel’s. Thus as long as Israel refrains from a cease-fire deal that grants Hamas egregious concessions–i.e., as long as it resists international pressure to loosen its naval blockade of Gaza, ease its tight security checks on overland cargo to Gaza, and relax restrictions on dual-use imports like cement that Hamas has repeatedly diverted to build its terrorist infrastructure at the expense of civilian needs–Hamas will likely have difficulty rebuilding its capabilities.
In short, Israel now has a golden opportunity to destroy Hamas’s rocket capabilities once and for all. It would be folly to waste it.