In today’s New York Times, Yediot Aharonot military analyst Ronen Bergman has some sobering conclusions about the fighting in Gaza. While he agrees that in an objective sense, Hamas was defeated on the battlefield by the Israel Defense Forces, it must be acknowledged that the terrorist group exposed some of the army’s deficiencies and may well have established itself as “an equal party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.”
For those who have acted as if Hamas is the victor in the fighting because it forced Israel to counter-attack and thus created havoc in Gaza, our John Podhoretz’s opinion on this issue published last week in the New York Post still holds. Hamas didn’t win. It lost much of its arsenal and saw its carefully built network of border tunnels destroyed before they could be used to pull off a massive terrorist atrocity. And for all the talk about Israel losing in the court of public opinion, it’s not clear that the latest war changed a thing in that battle. Due in no small measure to the rising tide of anti-Semitism, hatred for Israel is greater than ever. But support for the Jewish state here in the United States remains high.
And yet, as the always insightful Bergman notes, the IDF has plenty of lessons to learn from the last month. Iron Dome proved to be one of the greatest technological advances in recent military history as it effectively negated Hamas’s vast arsenal of long- and medium-range rockets (something that was very bad news indeed for Hezbollah which now realizes that their rocket threat on Israel’s northern border is now also officially useless). But along with the high-tech victory, there were also obvious intelligence failures. The Israelis underestimated the size of Hamas’s arsenal as well as the fighting ability of its cadres in Gaza. Nor was the army ready for the size or the scope of the tunnel threat once the fighting started. It will have to invest heavily in efforts to detect tunnel building or face a rerun of that episode in the future. Bergman also notes correctly that Israel’s special forces proved unable or unwilling to pull off any major operations that might have either inflicted great damage on Hamas or deal a devastating blow to the Islamists’ morale.
Does that all add up to a situation in which the war ends pretty much the way it started but “with significant damage to Israel’s deterrence,” as Bergman summed it up?
The hope within Israel’s Defense Ministry is that the devastating damage done to Hamas’s infrastructure will mean that it will be years before the terrorists think about starting another round. But considering that with Hamas seemingly determined to keep the rockets flying until it gets want it wants in negotiations, it is far from certain that this war is really over. Hamas is hoping to keep up a war of attrition and that is the sort of conflict that is hard for any democracy, even one, like Israel, that understands it is locked in a battle for the survival of their homeland, to win.
Moreover, Bergman’s conclusion about Hamas improving its status in negotiations with Egypt and Israel is inarguable. By surviving this war of choice that it started, Hamas can claim a victory of a sort. No matter how badly its forces are whipped in the field or how pathetic its rocket offensive has become with almost no real damage done to Israel despite thousands of attacks, as long as it is still standing when the shooting stops, it hasn’t entirely lost.
Nor does the talk about replacing Hamas with the supposedly more moderate and utterly irrelevant Palestinian Authority—at least at the border crossings—amount to much. Anyone who expects the humanitarian aid—including the concrete for rebuilding Gaza—that will inevitably flow into the strip to be kept out of Hamas’s hands is dreaming. Hamas isn’t giving up power voluntarily and there is no sign that it can be overthrown.
What Bergman’s conclusions do mean is that, as John noted last week, Israel’s only option in this conflict is to stay strong and prepare as best it can for the inevitable next round of a long war. Contrary to President Obama and others who want to save the Jewish state from itself, that war can’t be ended by territorial withdrawals on the West Bank that would create a larger and more dangerous version of Gaza.
Israel has good reason to be proud of its army after the last month. But no one should assume that their victories mean that the threat from Hamas has really been diminished. No one wants to give the murderers and war criminals of Hamas any credit but while their organization remains in charge in Gaza, they haven’t really been defeated. If Israel wants to change that unpalatable strategic conclusion, it’s going to have to do what it understandably appears unwilling to do: re-occupy Gaza and finish the Islamist terror movement once and for all.