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Between a ceasefire and a ground operation: Pillar of Defence – the interim status

19/11/2012

Operation “Pillar of Defence” has entered its sixth day. Until now, more than 600 missiles and rockets have been fired at Israel, reaching a record for the number of launches and their range as a dozen of them were fired at the strategic centre of Israel – Tel Aviv and the capital Jerusalem. Over 5.5 million Israelis (around 70% of Israel’s entire population) are now under direct threat of attack.

Israel, for its part, has targeted Hamas bases, headquarters, government buildings and operatives on a daily (and mostly nightly) basis, reaching a record of 1350 aerial strikes.

The toll of casualties rises every day, over 30 Israelis (three killed) and 100 Palestinians (the vast majority of which are reported members of Hamas).  The strikes continue, the launching continues, both economies are currently stalling and both leaderships are analysing their next steps.

As the pressure to reach a satisfying ceasefire which could put an end to this cycle of violence lingers, now is a good time to estimate the conditions on both sides.

Israel

According to the government’s pre-stated principles, operation “Pillar of Defence” is aimed at striking a heavy blow to Hamas’ military infrastructure so as to severely damage its launching capabilities (especially for long range missiles) and to create a new set of ground rules between Israel and the Gaza Strip based on substantive deterrence. As of now, Israel can claim it has succeeded in carrying out the most intensive attack against Hamas in four years, eliminating an extensive portion of Hamas’ military commanding network; targeting its most important operational bases and launch pads; crippling its long range launching capabilities through a pre-emptive strike on its crucial line of long-ranged Iranian backed missiles – the fajar 5 – and through the devastation of the special UAV programme it has been working on for years.

So far, Israel has maintained legitimacy among the international community by relying on its basic right to defend itself, and has even avoided a special assembly of the Security Council being called.  This has enabled its military to continue with daily aerial strikes (with a prepared set of targets still on their list) and to prepare for a wide-scale ground operation to take over parts of the Gaza Strip, areas from which Hamas targets Israel.

Israels biggest success, on the military strategic aspect, is the use of the new civil defence system – The Iron Dome – which has successfully thwarted over 65% of the missiles launched at Israel; and even more importantly all the missiles that have been targeted towards the centre of Israel. It is hard to imagine what the over-all situation on the ground, and the possible chain of events both politically and operationally, would be without the thwarting of these missiles. Israel’s ability to withhold the expansion of its military actions, and to allow more time for a negotiated ceasefire, is extremely valuable and has been granted by this Israeli-made system.

Hamas

Six days of intense fighting has positioned Hamas, especially in the Arab world, as a strong military and political entity. It has maintained an ability to conduct what it perceives to be a military retaliation for almost a week – despite hundreds of aerial strikes against their commanders, launch pads, bases and headquarters. Withstanding this, it even reached new levels of military capabilities and fired a total of more missiles and rockets in six days in 2012 than they fired in over three weeks in 2008 (during Cast Led). Its success in launching missiles at Israel’s major cities, both in the South and especially in the centre is matched only with Saddam Hussein’s attack on Tel Aviv in the early 1990s and the Egyptian and Jordanian attacks during the 1948 war. As a terror organisation, it is successfully terrorising over 70% of Israel’s population on a daily basis, disrupting the everyday lives of millions, forcing them to stay close (or in) shelters.

It appears that Hamas is capable, to some extent, of rearming itself, even after heavy fire, and it has created an effective network of weapons suppliers which comes through even in the midst of fighting. Most importantly, Hamas has managed to politically position itself as a defiant political entity governing the Gaza Strip (while in 2007 its military coup was considered by the international community as illegitimate, or even illegal). Hamas has hosted more international leaders in six days more than it has in six years, who are acknowledging their legitimate rule over Gaza. The Egyptian Prime Minister, the Turkish Foreign Minister, the Secretary General of the Arab League, the Tunisian Foreign Minister and even the Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister (an official representative of Hamas’ main rival amongst the Palestinians) are among those who visited (or about to visit) Gaza. Hamas is even politically strong enough to decline the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s pressure to cease the rocket attacks on Israel, and is reported to have harden its conditions for a ceasefire, instead vowing to keep on fighting until its conditions are met.

Having said all of this, it is clear why the fighting goes on and why it reached a strategically important juncture: Both sides want to win, and more importantly neither side wants to come across as the losing party. Both sides are paying a price in the fighting, but neither of them is asking for an end. This juncture can be seen as a slippery, and potentially very dangerous, slope. If a cease fire will not be reached in the next 48-72 hours – such a deal which would enable both parties to fulfil their military and political needs – a serious escalation involving a massive Israeli military raid into the Gaza Strip is inevitable. While it seems that Israeli cabinet ministers are not considering this to be a preferable next step – with the continuation of firing towards Israel they will believe they have no other choice than to move forward with the operation. While Hamas is well aware of the possible consequences of an Israeli military raid into Gaza, possibly even threatening its actual survival as an entity ruling Gaza, it still doesn’t want to be the side that concedes, and with the continuation of the fighting it is bringing a raid on itself.

When faced with this kind of situation in the past, both sides needed a credible middle-man (or country) to help bring an end to the cycle of violence. While it should be noted that the Egyptian President is so far playing a crucial role (with Israeli agreement here) in his attempt to create a ceasefire, using possible leverage on Hamas  (which expects him to fight its diplomatic war against Israel and its Western allies) – Israel is now facing a new situation in which the triangle that is working on the ceasefire is comprised of countries which are odds with the Israeli government: Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. That of course affects the very ability of the Israeli government to feel represented in the negotiations and of course to comprehend their outcome. Israel is now counting on third parties – such as the US and some European actors – to fight its battles with Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. Past experience of such cases are not very promising.

If all of these obstacles will not be solved in the next coming days the road to a severe deterioration is already paved. Given that these gaps can be bridged only through leaders who will put aside their political concerns, their own “streets” and public opinions for the sake of the better solution – there is little room for optimism. But as we say in the Middle East: it’s better to be a “realistic optimist” than a “dreadful pessimist”.