The Guns of Gaza – Israel Attacks, Hamas Reacts
Israel’s targeting capabilities revealed a new level of sophistication.
(SPECIAL TO ARMCHAIR GENERAL, Dec. 30, 2008) Last Saturday, Israeli Defense Force aircraft launched over a hundred tons of precision-guided ordnance against a wide range of terrorist-related targets in the Gaza Strip. Extraordinarily well-planned and well-executed, that first wave of attacks was only the beginning.
Serious military observers were struck immediately by the changed mentality of the IDF and Israel’s government. In 2006, timidity, dithering and confusion led to a self-inflicted defeat. But the Israelis learned the hard lessons. When the first F-16s with blue and white insignia screamed in over Gaza last weekend, it became clear that the IDF—or at least its air arm—meant business this time.
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“Operation Lead” began with an artful deception effort. After Hamas refused to renew the truce that had been in effect and began launching unguided rockets against Israeli cities and towns again, the terrorists expected swift retaliation. In fact, Hamas welcomed the prospect, since its leaders knew the population of Gaza was wearying of their rule and the misery it fostered. The terrorists wanted a bloody exchange to rally Palestinians behind them again.
But the fanatics behind Hamas never expected the force and scope of Israel’s retaliation. Israel even blindsided them as to the timing. Instead of launching pin-prick raids and tightening up its grip on Gaza’s border crossings again, Israel re-opened a number of crossings to allow humanitarian aide into Gaza, while Israeli political leaders stated publicly that attacks weren’t in the offing.
Accustomed to manipulating the world media, Hamas assumed that its complaints about the humanitarian situation had carried the day. The terrorists relaxed, proceeding with business as usual, launching more rockets into Israel, keeping their weapons workshops busy and even holding an open-air graduation ceremony for a new class of their political police.
When the first wave of Israeli strikes hit home, it was clear that the IDF’s targeteers had advanced far beyond the U.S. Air Force’s conception of “Shock and Awe,” which had been to bomb empty buildings in the dead of night in order to demonstrate our capabilities—never bothering to take the enemy’s all-or-nothing mentality into account. The IDF, in contrast, went in to kill as many terrorists as they could.
Initial targets attacked over the weekend included terrorist headquarters, arsenals, bomb factories, training compounds, police torture facilities, a mosque used to hide ordnance, Islamic University sites used as “safe” covers for terror operations, and a number of rocket-launching positions. By Monday, the IDF had shifted to employ late-generation U.S. bunker-buster bombs to destroy as many as forty smuggling tunnels under the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt. As I write, air attacks continue to punish Hamas.
The good news is that Hamas is being punished severely. The bad news is that punishment won’t be enough to do more than buy Israel some time.
First, the positives:
Israel’s targeting capabilities revealed a new level of sophistication. Precision at a level previously brought to bear against a single target after much deliberation was successfully applied to hundreds of strikes conducted in rapid succession. This means, first of all, that Israel’s various intelligence elements did a superb job in identifying targets.
And, as I can attest from my own experiences in Israel during the 2006 war, there’s more to such targeting than saying, “That’s it, that’s the building.” Working in densely urbanized Gaza, where 1.5 million people crowd into an area just twice the size of the District of Columbia, means countering the now-widespread terrorist tactic of putting arms caches, safe houses, training centers, barracks and headquarters in the immediate proximity of schools, clinics, mosques and tenements. Israeli target cells work with weaponeers to decide the best angle of attack to make sure a collapsing building falls into the street, not on the kindergarten to its other side. The IDF even narrows targeting down to specific floors and windows, avoiding the destruction on an entire apartment building, for instance, if only an upper floor needs to be hit. Make no mistake: Unlike their terrorist enemies, Israelis go to great lengths to limit civilian casualties.
Their efforts have been remarkably successful thus far. While there have been almost 400 KIA in Israel’s air-strikes to date, at most a few dozen civilians have died. Certainly, any civilian deaths must be regretted, but given the cheek-to-jowl nature of life in Gaza, the IDF’s kill ratio of better than 15 dead terrorists to each dead civilian indicates an unrivaled targeting mastery. (Compare Israeli efficiency and precision with the abysmal performance of the Russian air force over Georgia last summer, when Russian pilots took days to take out in-the-open targets even with their latest-model guided bombs.)
Although the global media, as always, have leapt to criticize Israel and defend the terrorists, Hamas has had unusual difficulties making a convincing case for Israeli callousness. The terror organization’s rhetoric about a slaughter of the innocents simply isn’t backed up by the current evidence. Nonetheless, Hamas and its external allies will continue to fight the propaganda war, convinced that it’s the most reliable means to force Israel to break off the fight.
And that brings us to the bad news. While the thousands of terror rockets Hamas has launched at Israel over the years excited no serious protests from international forums, humanitarian organizations or activist groups, the reflexive criticism of Israel’s efforts at self-defense have been deafening. Part of this is fashionable Leftist politics, and a good bit of it is anti-Semitism. But there’s another ugly element in play that no one wants to discuss: Leftwing racism. There’s an unspoken assumption among terror’s apologists that Arabs really are inferior and can’t be expected to behave with morality and restraint, but that “white” Israel should do everything perfectly. Indeed, Leftist condescension in the form of excuse-making and narcotizing pity has been instrumental in retarding Arab progress.
By and large, the global media—a herd with the instinctive behavior of all herds—is Israel’s consistent enemy. Factor rage and jealousy in there, too.
The greatest difficulty for Israel, though, is a practical one: Even the best-conducted air campaign cannot decisively defeat an enemy such as Hamas. Thus far, we’ve seen effective punitive strikes that have cost the terrorists dearly, but, when faced with a religious-fanatic enemy who sees every struggle as a zero-sum game, you have to go in on the ground and kill terrorists in devastating, paralyzing numbers if you want to effect decisive change.
That’s the dilemma Israel now faces.
To Invade, Or Not To Invade?
Although the evidence is clear that the IDF’s air arm has learned a great deal from the Lebanon debacle of 2006—and that Israeli political leaders drew tough conclusions, as well—it remains to be seen whether Israel’s concept of the employment of ground forces and its grasp of what it takes to achieve a meaningful victory have progressed as far as its stand-off-targeting efforts.
To date, Israel has mobilized almost 7,000 reservists and combat units have deployed along the border with the Gaza Strip. Yet, ground force activity to date suggests that political leaders are maneuvering so that they’ll have a full range of options as to how—and if—to continue combat operations, but that no final decisions have been made.
In order to shatter Hamas to the extent that it would remain no more than a minor threat for years, it would be necessary for Israel to conduct a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip and to root through every building, room, closet and sewer tunnel, killing every terrorist its soldiers found.
(While top Israeli officials already have ruled out such an extensive operation in public, their remarks could be part of an ongoing deception operation—we just don’t know.)
The problems with that approach are many. First, urban operations would mean high Israeli casualties, always a sensitive issue in this small state that’s ever struggling for its survival. Second, Israel either would need to kill as many terrorists as possible on the spot, or face the need to confine and administer a massive population of new prisoners—handing global radicals yet another cause. Third, the carnage and destruction and duration of such an effort would allow the world media to paint Israel in the worst possible light and to rally hostile regimes and Western terror-sympathizers against the Jewish state.
Could Israel accept the casualties? Could it do what has to be done on the ground? Could it endure near-universal condemnation as terrorism’s apologists around the world called for its censure, for embargoes—and for more terrorism?
We don’t know, because the Israelis don’t know. Statesmen and generals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are debating these issues as you read these words.
And there’s another crucial factor in play: The change of presidential administrations looming in the United States.
The Obama Factor
Israel struck last Saturday for several reasons. First and foremost, it had already endured over a week of terror-rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip—as many as 100 strikes on a single day. No state could tolerate such attacks upon its people and its territory. Second, Israel had intelligence (since proven correct) that Hamas had used the recent truce to smuggle in longer-range rockets capable of hitting Israeli coastal cities (and a nuclear reactor) up to forty kilometers from Gaza. Third, Israel had amassed the targeting information it needed—but almost all targeting data is perishable. The fourth reason was Israel’s own impending elections. The present government needed to prove it could act with resolve and effectiveness, after the mess it left behind in Lebanon. The burgeoning opposition had already criticized the incumbents for their failure to protect Israel’s citizens. With the polls only a matter of weeks away, it was time to act.
The fifth, and far from the least, reason why Israel attacked when it did is the Obama Factor. Given the president-elect’s elusiveness on the Middle East, Israel simply doesn’t know what to expect after the change of American administrations, but its leaders understood that they could count on support from President Bush in his final days in office (Israel certainly alerted the U.S. that the strikes were coming—and may even have tipped off Egypt, which now views Hamas as hostile and dangerous.)
Indeed, the Bush administration has shown well-reasoned support for Israel’s latest response to terrorism; that said, one of the strongest arguments Israel’s government must be weighing against a large-scale ground operation in Gaza is that the Obama administration could withdraw American support, cut off the flow of replacement munitions (thus encouraging Hezbollah to act up again), and attempt to mediate as an “honest broker,” forcing a cease-fire on Israel and, in essence, rescuing the terrorists and leaving Israel frustrated and embarrassed yet again.
President-elect Obama’s coyness has done great harm in this regard. No one knows where he ultimately will come down on the chimerical Middle-East peace process. Fears that he’ll be resolutely pro-Islam appear wildly exaggerated, but even a lesser shift could do catastrophic damage. The new president may even turn out to be a firm supporter of Israel in the end—but Israeli intelligence, for all its many skills, can’t offer political leaders assurance on that point.
The next few weeks will be interesting, to say the least. While the president-elect’s policy of staying out of matters of state while repeating that we have only one president at a time has been wise and admirable in general, these are exceptional circumstances. Obama’s refusal to step forward in support of Israel and underscore the Bush administration’s position has introduced new uncertainty into the least certain, and most volatile, portion of the globe.
Ralph Peters is a long-standing member of the Armchair General team. A retired Army officer, world traveler, columnist and author, his most-recent book is Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.