One year ago, Hamas terrorists launched a war against Israel that lasted 50 days. When the dust settled, both sides were forced to accept a return to the status quo that had prevailed before the fighting began. But as both sides to the conflict continue to prepare for what seems to be an inevitable next round, Israeli leaders must consider whether the change in tactics by Hamas last time requires them to adjust their own strategy. If, as Mitch Ginsburg writes in the Times of Israel, Hamas’s approach is no longer purely defensive but rather predicated on a belief that carrying the fight into Israel will bring them victory, that may lead Jerusalem to start thinking the heretofore unthinkable about a Gaza war plan that could hinge on decapitating the Hamas leadership and/or ending its rule.
Last year’s war was a summer-long nightmare for Israelis who spent much of it scurrying into shelters during air raids. But after thousands of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities and the use of terror tunnels not much had changed other than the loss of more than 2,000 Palestinians (including several hundred civilians) dead and the fact that much of the strip was left in ruins. Hamas paid no political price for its cynical decision to go to war or its continued use of civilians as human shields. To the contrary, Israel was battered by unfair criticisms of its tactics, including some from an Obama administration that failed to listen to the statement from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that said its actions were a model for U.S. forces.
Hamas has signaled at times during the past months that it would like to extend the cease-fire with Israel that went back into effect after the shooting stopped. But a combination of factors may lead it to change course and launch another terror offensive. The increased pressure on its rule from Egypt that rightly sees it as an ally of Muslim Brotherhood terrorists that seek to overthrow the Sisi government and the revived support from Iran could lead the Hamas leadership to think that another war would further undermine support for the Fatah rivals that rule the West Bank. They also may think the hostile attitude of the Obama administration toward the Netanyahu government is a green light to action that might further divide the two allies.
If so, the Israel Defense Forces is prepared. As Ginsburg writes, the IDF is seeking to learn the lessons of the last war and is working hard to be ready to counter terror tunnels into Israel as well as what appeared to be a shift in Hamas tactics that prioritized offensive actions aimed at taking the fight into the Jewish state rather than sitting back and waiting for their foes to exhaust themselves in Gaza.
But there may be more to their calculations than new tactics designed to thwart tunnels, more special forces operations or the latest technology to knock down rockets intended to kill random civilians. Part of Israel’s deterrence is the way the Israeli population united in the face of the assault from Hamas and carried on with normal life despite weeks of rocket attacks. So, too, is the Jewish state’s willingness to keep fighting what may be a generations-long war against Islamist terror that can yield no clear outcome. But the debate about the endgame with Gaza that was resolved in favor of avoiding a counter-offensive that would have ended Hamas rule may be decided differently this time.
Given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s innate caution when it comes to the use of force as well as the high casualties that would be inevitable should Israel seek to take out Hamas that seems unlikely. But if Gaza forces Israel’s hand again, the only answer may be, as Ginsburg quotes some military analysts saying, an effort to insert IDF troops deep inside Gaza at the start of the next war rather than the long wait the preceded the limited ground offensive last year.
More to the point, the presence of ISIS in Gaza and the very real possibility that Hamas is cooperating with them against Egypt in the Sinai may create an opportunity for the two countries to cooperate in an effort to end a threat to both of them of a deadly threat. Hamas must take into consideration the chance that the next war won’t be a limited one in which it can rely on international pressure and fear of casualties to force Israel to accept its continued control of Gaza. But the only way to stop what many see as an inevitable rematch in Gaza will be to convince Hamas that the next war will be its last. That may be a course of action that the Obama administration will oppose as it seeks to revive a peace process that has no chance of succeeding after the Iran nuclear deal has been signed and ratified by Congress. But it is exactly what U.S. Middle East policy ought to be if it was being conducted in a manner that prioritized peace rather than the president’s fantasies about bringing peace to the world.