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ICT articles bannerDr. Boaz Ganor

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. 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).

iHLS Israel Homeland Security

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