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Israel’s Policies during Operation “Protective Edge” – Defeat? Deterrence? Settlement?

Operation “Protective Edge” began on July 8, 2014 in light of the serious escalation in rocket fire directed at Israel from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorist organizations, led by Hamas. Hamas, which had refrained for many months from using the large rocket infrastructure that it had built in the Gaza Strip (which, immediately before the operation, consisted of ten thousand rockets that covered most of the territory of Israel), began to indiscriminately fire dozens of rockets into Israel in an attempt to hit civilian settlements.

Since the start of the operation, many in Israel have wondered what prompted Hamas to change its policy. Was the organization non-intentionally dragged into this operation by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other fractional Palestinian terrorist organizations that launched rockets into Israel from Gaza? Did the organization choose to adopt this policy as a deliberate escalation in light of the damage done to the organization’s infrastructure in the West Bank following the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers (in June 2014), or as an outburst to protest the economic crisis facing the organization and its inability to pay the salaries of its employees? Regardless of whether Hamas entered this war intentionally or not, the organization’s spokespeople publicly and clearly defined the goal of the battle early on – the lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Hamas explained that it seeks to establish a sea port and an airport in Gaza, as well as to open land crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip and from the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

Israel found itself dragged into a war that it was not interested in. Since Israel’s decision-makers misinterpreted the nature of the operation and the goals of Hamas in the early days of the battle, it is not surprising that they also did not set clear goals for Israel. Throughout the first month of the war, various Israeli spokespeople presented different goals apparently underlying the campaign, including: restore quiet and security to the Israeli home front, deliver a serious blow to Hamas’ military infrastructure, neutralize the Palestinian organizations’ rockets systems, destroy the “attack tunnels” that were dug into Israel, and demilitarize the terrorist organizations in Gaza. Despite the range of goals tossed about by Israel’s spokespeople, almost all of them agreed that the defeat of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip should not be the ultimate goal of the operation.

Despite this range of stated goals, Prime Minister Netanyahu consistently declared throughout the war that the goal of the campaign was to “restore quiet and security to all citizens of Israel, especially to the residents of the South”. On the surface, this consistency should have refuted the lack of clarity surrounding Israel’s operational goals in Operation “Protective Edge”, but rather the stated goal was passive – the return of the status-quo ante. Such a goal can be achieved in several ways, from holding talks with Hamas and reaching an agreement, to deterring Hamas from continuing to fire at Israel, and neutralizing Hamas’s military capabilities. This limited goal could not serve as a strategic guideline for the IDF. Furthermore, the dangerous combination of a lack of understanding of the enemy’s strategic objectives along with a vague definition of Israel’s strategic objectives led the IDF to act hesitantly during the first few weeks of the war based on the repeatedly discredited assumption that a ceasefire would be set within a short amount of time.

The decision to avoid setting the stated goal of Hamas’s defeat in Operation “Protective Edge” essentially dictated a strategic goal that was designed to achieve settlement rather than defeat. The defeat of a military system is achieved by delivering a severe blow to the enemy’s military infrastructure and destroying its fighting capability. Settlement, on the other hand, is meant to be achieved by neutralizing the enemy’s motivation to continue fighting even though, on the face of it, the enemy still has residual fighting capability. Settlement can manifest itself in one of three ways: coercion, compromise and surrender. The type of settlement is determined by the level of deterrence that the state succeeds in imposing on the terrorist organization. For instance, as much as the state is able to cause significant damage to the organization and demonstrate its military and intelligence superiority, it might be able to deter the enemy from continued fighting and to achieve a coerced settlement in which the state imposes its conditions on the enemy. When a state is unable to cause significant damage to the enemy and its military and intelligence superiority is not reflected in military success, or when the enemy is able to cause severe and sustained damage to the state, a situation may develop in which the enemy is the one that deters the state from continued fighting and, therefore, the organization dictates to the state the terms of surrender. When both sides are unable to neutralize the motivation of the enemy to continue fighting, or when both sides equally deter and are deterred, then the settlement achieved is one of compromise in the framework of which neither side is able to dictate the terms of the settlement to its enemy.

In terms of Operation “Protective Edge”, given that Israel decided from the outset not to set the defeat of Hamas as the strategic objective of the operation, it had to achieve a high level of deterrence in order to bring Hamas to a coerced settlement or at least to one of compromise in which Israel can dictate the terms to Hamas. However, it seems that, at least during the first month of the operation, Israel did not achieve the required level of deterrence in order to force Hamas to agree to such a settlement. The question then arises, why has deterrence not been achieved?

The answer to this questions lies in the paradox of deterrence and de-legitimization. In order for a terrorist organization to be deterred, the state must cause it significant damage and demonstrate that continued fighting will be futile and counterproductive for the organization. It is worth noting that the cost-benefit analysis of a terrorist organization like Hamas is essentially different than the cost-benefit considerations of a democratic-liberal Western state like Israel. Costs considered intolerable for a state are certainly tolerable for a terrorist organization. While a state undertakes military operations with the goal of protecting its citizens, a terrorist organization embeds itself within the civilian population in order to protect its military infrastructure, facilities and leadership. In order for a terrorist organization to be deterred from continued fighting, the state must force the organization to pay a heavy price in terms of the subjective cost-benefit considerations that guide the organization and its leaders. When a terrorist organization manages to preserve its senior chain of command as well as its military infrastructure located within or underneath dense civilian centers and protected sites such as hospitals, mosques and UNRWA buildings, a state that is committed to the principle of proportionality has almost no chance of forcing the organization to pay a price high enough to deter it from continued fighting. In other words, according to the above-described conditions, the ability to deter a terrorist organization is inversely related to restrained military policy. On the one hand, a lack of restraint that would lead to significant collateral damage to civilians (even when attacking legitimate military targets) is liable to engender severe international criticism and a de-legitimization campaign against the state. Thus Israel found itself in am irresolvable paradox during Operation “Protective Edge”. Its erroneous assessment regarding Hamas’s military objectives and the nature of the battle during the first ten days of the operation prior to the ground operation led Israel to a rigor proportionality in trying to avoid collateral damage to civilians. While its restrained air strike attacks may have provided Israel with support and international legitimacy in its justified war against Hamas, these attacks were virtually useless since they did not significantly damage Hamas’s military infrastructure, headquarters, launchers, or commanders who were entrenched within and near dense civilian areas. These attacks, which damaged buildings used by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, did not actually have an effect on the organization’s cost-benefit balance and certainly did not achieve the desired deterrence. Israel’s policy of restraint essentially led to the prolonging of the operation and did not prompt Hamas to seek a quick settlement. This state of affairs was evident in, among other things, Israel’s agreement to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal after eight days of fighting while Hamas rejected it. Even after the Israeli government instructed the IDF, on the 10th day of the operation, to launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip (after a Hamas cell penetrated Israeli territory via an attack tunnel), Israel did not change the strategic objective of the campaign nor its policy of restraint. The numerous Palestinian casualties during the ground operation was the result of planned ambushes by Hamas that were carried out against Israeli ground forces on the outskirts of civilian neighborhoods and the return fire used to extricate IDF troops and casualties. Israel’s decision to uphold restraint and avoid collateral damage as much as possible resulted in a prolonged battle and a higher number of casualties, mainly among the Palestinians but also among the IDF forces who went in to Gaza. Moreover, the Hamas leadership, which felt safe and protected in underground tunnels in civilian areas, was not deterred from repeatedly violating ceasefires and humanitarian pauses in the fighting. Therefore, when the ceasefire talks in Egypt ran into difficulties, after it was made clear to Israel that it would not succeed in dictating a coerced settlement to Hamas (by adding a section on the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip from rockets and weapons) and after Hamas failed in its attempts to force Israel to accept a settlement through surrender (by forcing Israel to agree to the establishment of a sea port and airport in the Gaza Strip), the Palestinians once again violated the ceasefire. In response to this violation, Israel carried out targeted killings against leaders of Hamas’s military wing in the Gaza Strip in a way that demonstrated its military and intelligence superiority over Hamas. This was perhaps the first time in over 40 days of fighting that Hamas was forced to pay a strategically significant price for its insistence on continued fighting. Hamas’s immediate response to the attack on its leadership was to launch an unprecedented number of rockets in an attempt to demonstrate to Israel that neither its rocket-launching capability nor its motivation had been damaged. However, Israel succeeded in showing Hamas that it can force the organization to pay a heavy strategic price for the continuation of rockets assaults. The deterrent effect was achieved and Hamas was forced to agree to the Egyptian- Israeli condition, which practically stated that there will be no preconditions to the ceasefire and the two sides will discuss all of their claims only after the ceasefire is reached. 

It should be emphasized that, from Israel’s point of view, the importance of achieving a deterrent effect in Operation “Protective Edge” was not solely in order to achieve suitable conditions in the settlement with Hamas. Deterrence was also necessary in order to guarantee that any settlement achieved will hold up over time. Israel had to make it clear to Hamas as well as to its other enemies, especially Hezbollah and Iran, that the benefit gained by launching rockets at Israel or carrying out terrorist attacks is far less than the price that it will be forced to pay for those actions.

The question arises: Could Israel have conducted the war differently in a way that would have achieved greater deterrence and in a shorter period of time? It seems that the answer is affirmative. Had Israeli leaders understood the nature of the war in its early days, had the Israeli government presented the IDF with the stated goal of Hamas’s defeat, and had Israel adopted a different offensive policy in which the IDF was proactive rather than reactive, it is reasonable to assume that the war would have produced faster and better results for Israel. Hamas’s military defeat does not necessarily require the full occupation of the Gaza Strip, and it certainly does not demand a long-term IDF presence on the ground while managing Palestinian civilian life. Hamas’s military defeat would also not necessarily lead to anarchy or create a void that would be filled by radical elements such as ISIS, as many in Israel feared would happen. Following the military defeat of Hamas, it could have been possible to achieve a regime change in the Gaza Strip, supported or led by various elements, including: the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, European countries or the United States. However, even once the government refrained from setting the defeat of Hamas as its strategic objective, different operational conduct could have been likely to achieve the desired deterrent effect. In other words, instead of establishing a restrained fire policy with serious limitations of collateral damage, Israel could have carried out targeted attacks against Hamas’s military core at the start of the operation while implementing a more liberal fire policy (that still abides by the commandments of the IHL). In that case, the collateral damage of Palestinian civilians who refused to follow IDF instructions to evacuate areas of attack may have been higher, but the strategic damage that would have been caused to Hamas in an early stage of the operation would have deterred its leaders from prolonging the war, shortened the length of Operation “Protective Edge” and, therefore, could have resulted in fewer Palestinian casualties in the overall total of the operation.