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BICOM  (www.bicom.org.uk) Analysis: The purpose of Israel’s Gaza operation
Key Points

– Israel’s immediate goal in this operation is to contain the threat from
Hamas, rather than to destroy the regime.

– Hamas has forced Israel to act militarily by abandoning the ceasefire weeks
before it officially ended, and extending the range of its rockets to threaten
500,000 Israeli civilians. Its overconfidence led it to the misperception that
it could use rocket attacks to push Israel to more concessions.

– As a democracy, accountable to its civilians, the Israeli government cannot
ignore the demands of its civilians to protect them from attack.

– Hamas’s entrenched control of Gaza and its use of the ceasefire to smuggle in
longer range rockets, has left Israel with little choice but to push back the
Hamas threat as a short term solution. The alternative, a full scale
reoccupation of Gaza to topple the Hamas regime, threatens too high a cost in
military and civilian losses.


On Saturday 27 December, the IDF launched a major aerial operation against
Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. The targets have included military
installations and training facilities, cells planning to launch rockets at
Israel, weapons stores in the town of Rafah, and the network of smuggling
tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.[i] The great majority of the
approximately 300 Palestinian fatalities from the attacks were Hamas militants,
with the UN putting the figures of civilian deaths at 51.[ii] A number of
Hamas commanders are reportedly among those killed.[iii]

Israeli leaders have stated repeatedly in recent weeks that they do not wish to
launch military operations in Gaza and sought a continuation of the ceasefire
arrangement which was brokered by Egypt six months ago. Even as election
campaigning began in Israel several months ago, southern communities were
suffering rocket attacks, but the country’s leaders were adamant about their
preference to maintain the ceasefire, imperfect as it was, over a military
operation. When last week Hamas demonstrated with a new wave of rocket fire
that the ceasefire would not be extended, Israel saw no other option than to
act militarily to protect its civilians. But why has Israel chosen to act as it
has, what is the purpose of the IDF operation, and what is likely to happen

Israel’s objectives

Israel’s foremost aim in its current military operation is to alter the balance
of its relationship with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. A situation
developed whereby Hamas felt that they could fire rockets with impunity at
Israeli towns, placing civilians in a perpetual state of terror, and that
Israel’s fear of Hamas ability to escalate the conflict would keep them from
responding. Israel’s military strikes are intended to restore quiet to its
Western Negev and coastal communities by compelling Hamas to recalculate the
cost of its terror campaign.

Israel’s decision to act now was made all the more difficult by the fact that
Israel is approaching a general election in February 2009. Hamas appeared to
believe that Israel would not be able to make a major strategic choice during
an election campaign, a consideration that appears to have emboldened them. A
Hamas leaflet distributed last week, after Hamas’s decision to end the
ceasefire, mocked Israel for failing to have a response to its attacks, and
suggested that Israel was hamstrung by its domestic politics. It stated: “The
enemy is in a state of confusion and doesn’t know what to do… Their fragile
cabinet has met in a desperate attempt to stop the rockets while thousands of
settlers have found refuge in shelters which, by God’s will, will become their
permanent homes.”

This has proven a grave misperception on Hamas’s part. The ceasefire
demonstrated Israel’s willingness to tolerate Hamas’s rule in Gaza in the short
term, on the proviso that it refrained from carrying out the Qassam rocket
attacks that have plagued Israel for seven years. However, Israel was not
willing to permit Hamas to both enhance its military strength in Gaza to match
that of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, whilst hitting Israel at will in order
to try to create more favourable terms for a ceasefire. It is notable that both
Cairo and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have blamed Hamas for the current
situation. Abbas referred to the rocket attacks as “acts of foolishness” on
Hamas’s part.

Israel’s immediate aim, therefore, is to inflict as heavy damage as possible on
Hamas military and security infrastructure in Gaza in order to weaken the
organisation, to interrupt its ability to fire at Israel, and to set a new
deterrence benchmark in order to put a stop to the rocket fire.

An unenviable dilemma

For its civilians to be under continued attack is untenable in any democratic
country where the government is accountable to its civilians. The residents of
Israel’s socioeconomically disadvantaged southern towns and cities have
demanded that the government act in their defence. They have constantly
reminded the authorities that they have the same right to protection as the
citizens of Tel Aviv or Haifa. Whilst the number of fatalities direct from
rockets and mortars, nineteen since 2004, is relatively low, it would be
difficult to overstate the threat and fear experienced by tens of thousands of
people living within the rocket range. Their lives depend on warning and
air-raid siren systems which, to British ears, sound reminiscent of the blitz.
Residents of Sderot, a town of 20,000 people, cannot stray more than 15 seconds
from a bomb shelter or secure room. By using the recent ceasefire to acquire
more powerful rockets with a range of up to 40 kilometres, more than 500,000
Israelis have fallen into Hamas’s radius of attack, raising the strategic
stakes, and making Israeli military action harder to avoid. The rocket strikes
on Ashdod on Sunday, nearly 40km from Gaza, and the two Israeli deaths and
numerous injuries in the last three days, underlie the threat to Israeli
civilian life.

Israel’s leaders sincerely committed themselves to the June ceasefire,
considering it to be the best of a poor set of options vis-à-vis Hamas, and
made clear it wanted the period of calm to be extended. Even when the
understanding was breached by Hamas throughout November and December, Israel’s
government, in the thick of a highly sensitive election campaign, resisted
weeks of domestic pressure and refrained from undertaking a major military
response. Its only non-violent option was to respond by closing border
crossings from which goods were transferred via Israel. But the impact of this
on Hamas has been offset by the extensive smuggling under the Egyptian border
which according to one estimate has provided for 90% of Gaza’s imports.[vi]

Israel’s decision to launch a targeted operation on the night of November 4 to
destroy a tunnel being dug under the Gaza-Israel border for the purposes of
kidnapping IDF soldiers was a risk, and served as a pretext for Hamas to
abandon the ceasefire. But Hamas’s real interest in undermining the ceasefire
with renewed rocket attacks was to force greater concessions. When Israel
agreed to the ceasefire in June, it swallowed several bitter pills, including
the continued captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and ignoring the
Hamas-controlled tunnels being used to smuggle more advanced weapons (including
longer range rockets), money and goods under the Gaza- Egypt border. Had Israel
granted further concessions to Hamas at this point in order to restore relative
calm, it would have been strategically detrimental to Israel’s desire, shared
by the West and many Arab governments, to weaken Palestinian extremists and
strengthen moderates in the West Bank Palestinian Authority.

In a statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged an end to the
violence and supported the “clear consensus … that everything should be done
to protect the political space for those leaders committed to peaceful
negotiations.” Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair also echoed these
sentiments before Israel’s attacks, reiterating his view that “we need to
devise a new strategy for Gaza, which brings that territory back under the
legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their
[Palestinian] suffering and fully protects the security of Israel.”[viii]

Israel’s modus operandi

It is difficult to think of comparable situation where a country has faced the
problem of sustained, indiscriminate rocket fire on its communities by a
sub-state actor operating as a guerrilla force from within a civilian
population. Israel has faced it on two fronts: Hezbollah in South Lebanon and
Hamas (along with other militant groups) in Gaza. The policy options facing
Israel’s leaders have been extremely difficult. How are they to balance their
first duty, which is providing for their safety of its citizens, whilst
limiting the loss of innocent life on the other side facing an enemy who uses
its own people as human shields?

Close range rocket fire is a problem with which militaries all around the world
struggle to contend. In Israel’s case, the threat is against their civilian
population. Defensive measures, such as weapons which can intercept the rockets
in flight, are under development but still years from deployment. Israel
withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005 and, as its leaders are keen to
stress, it has no desire whatsoever to return. Lacking a satisfactory military
solution, Israel has lived with the rocket threat for seven years. When the
range of the rockets was 10km, Israel chose limited forms of response, and
eventually accepted an uncomfortable ceasefire to bring respite to its
civilians. But by hitting Ashdod on Sunday with smuggled military rockets,
Hamas proved how it had used the ceasefire to greatly upgrade the extent of its
threat, now covering close to 10% of Israel’s entire population. Facing this
scale of threat, Israel had to act.

In this operation Israel is attempting to downgrade Hamas’s threat by targeting
their command and control infrastructure, military facilities, supply tunnels
under the Gaza-Egypt border and militant activists. For now, Israel has
effectively opted to reduce the regime’s capacity to threaten Israel rather
than overturn the regime itself. The scale of Israel’s call up of reserves is
not believed to be sufficient for a full scale invasion of Gaza, but limited
incursions are a real possibility. At the same time, there are already reports
that Israel’s foreign ministry is considering a diplomatic exit strategy, but
no details have yet emerged. The reaction of Hamas may well determine how
Israel chooses to proceed.

The conduct of Israel’s current military operation, underpinned by an intense
period of intelligence-gathering and supported with parallel diplomatic and
media campaigns, indicates that it is a strategic option for which Israel’s
political and security establishment have been preparing. Despite the scale of
Israel’s attacks, until now, Israel has successfully managed to ensure that the
brunt of the assault is borne by Hamas militants. Israel has been actively
trying to avert charges of collective punishment, and to show its target is
Hamas, rather than ordinary Gazans, by allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza
throughout the period of the campaign.


Hamas’s use of increasingly powerful rockets has borne out Israel’s fears,
expressed when the ceasefire was declared in June, that Hamas would use the
period to increase its threat, in readiness to escalate the conflict when it
chose. As a democracy in which its leaders are accountable to their people,
Israel has shown remarkable restraint in the face of Hamas’s growing use of
rocket-based terrorism. But conscious that Hamas’s grip on Gaza is set to
continue, Israel has ultimately been forced to act on its duty to protect its
civilians. Whilst Israel has the military capacity to depose Hamas, the
consequences would be uncertain. As such, Israel has so far opted for more
limited objectives: reducing Hamas’s military capabilities in the short term
and reconfiguring the balance of deterrence in order to make Hamas think twice
before orchestrating more rocket attacks.

Reprinted from BICOM newsletter with thanks.

  1. December 29, 2008 at 18:34

    This is a typical Islamic reaction provoke a peaceful state like Israel by not wanting to extend the ceasefire then bombing the innocent civilians in southern Israel, when this incident happened no one complained no violent demonstrations in front of London’s Israeli consulate unlike now when the peaceful Israel is forced to retaliate to defend its innocent citizens from being killed by HAMAS, for the true color of the hateful and ferocious terrorist organization do visit,

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