The rationale for Israel’s war with Hamas has a shelf life. The higher the death toll of innocent civilians rises, the less Israel’s friends will be able to claim that the ends justify the means. The Israeli leadership knows this and is daily calculating how far and in what way to proceed.
The central aim is to staunch the flow of rockets fired from inside the Gaza Strip by militants of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Discovery of tunnels dug under the Gaza perimeter fence into Israel has added the further objective of destroying these too. The tunnels indicate an intention to infiltrate Israel to kill or kidnap its soldiers and citizens. As for the rockets, these may be no match for Israeli artillery but the very fact that they are too crude to target precisely makes them all the more terrifying in their unpredictability.
The militants are also intent upon disrupting daily life in Israel by forcing the population into shelters at a moment’s notice, bringing normal business to a halt. The fact that Hamas warned international airlines that their planes would be targets when flying into or out of Israel’s main Tel Aviv airport also speaks of a deliberate strategy on their part to cost Israel dear in terms of its international trade and reputation for security.
Yet Israelis know that the costs to them of effectively eliminating all the rockets and launchers stockpiled in Gaza since the last round of conflict in 2009, if not before, will be high. The only way to find each cache of arms in Gaza requires troops to go in on the ground. The same applies to find and destroy the tunnels. And in the rabbit-warren streets of Gaza’s crowded refugee camps and towns Israeli soldiers make easier targets for classic urban guerrilla warfare.
In many respects the Gaza strip, a slither of land covering 365sq km along the Mediterranean seaboard, and wedged between Israel and the border with Egypt, makes it an easy target for bombardment by air, land and sea. However, to bomb the densely populated area indiscriminately would be too drastic a measure to contemplate – a war crime and humanitarian disaster that would bring Israel pariah status abroad and a level of revulsion at home.
Yet, civilian casualties are essentially unavoidable in such an area, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters are embedded within the general population. They do not have isolated military installations and, even if they had the space for such facilities, they could expect these to have been eliminated by the Israeli airforce as soon as they appeared.
Israel’s strategic aims
One of the justifications for Israel’s blockade of Gaza that has prevented the inhabitants importing goods including basic sanitary and building equipment, is that such materials could be used to build bombs and military facilities. Without normal trade, however, a semblance of normal life in Gaza is unattainable for the population.
As is, Hamas stands accused of using schools and hospitals to hide weapons, effectively using civilians as human shields. This is a war crime, but so is bombing targets in the knowledge that civilians will be killed. Consequently, every step that the Israelis take to try to eliminate the rockets and the militants that plague them bears a cost.
As in previous wars on the Israel-Gaza front, the Israelis must calculate how much they can destroy and how strong a message they can deliver to Hamas, before international, if not domestic, pressure for a ceasefire becomes overwhelming. As they make their calculations though, they know Hamas is playing for public and international support too.
This is why the Israeli strategy cannot be open-ended. Among the Israeli public there is pressure to “finish” the job before calling a halt to the war. But what that actually means is not straightforward. As in any war, this one has its own dynamic, and Hamas is showing no signs of admitting defeat. On the contrary, Palestinian solidarity with Hamas has increased.
The Gazan people now say that they would rather die fighting than return to the slow death that the status quo ante had come to represent. Life in Gaza was tolerable when it was still possible to smuggle in goods from across the border with Egypt, but now that the Egyptian government has forced the closure of most of the tunnels used for smuggling the prospects are bleak.
This is why Hamas is insisting that the terms of any ceasefire must include a lifting of the blockade to enable people and goods to pass through the borders with Israel and Egypt. They have other demands too, but this basic one represents the key to ending the gruesome conflict.
And herein lies the ultimate logic of Israeli strategy, whether conscious or not. In their use of force they are sending the message not only to Hamas but also to international mediators that left to their own devices they will continue to use force until the rockets stop. Hence the only way to end the war is for others to manage the lifting of the blockade in such a way that this will not enable Hamas to regroup and renew its hostilities with Israel in the future.
In a way, therefore, the Israelis are signalling that if you don’t like the way we are dealing with the problem of Gaza and Hamas, you deal with it. And given the absence of Israeli readiness to agree terms for a two-state solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that will be no mean feat for the international community.