The Israel Defense Forces were planned and built to win short and “cheap” wars.
However, in its earliest years, the IDF was also forced to wage lengthy wars of attrition. It eventually put an end to these, beating the enemy and destroying its fighting capability to secure quiet that would last as long as possible.
Such periods of quiet were reached after “Operation Kadesh” in 1956, which ended the war of attrition waged by the fedayeen; after the “War for Peace in the Galilee” or First Lebanon War of 1982, which put an end to the Katyusha missile threat from Lebanon; and after “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002, which seriously checked the momentum of the Second Intifada.
Today, too, Israel is waging a war of attrition, this time against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But this particular war has turned into the longest in Israel’s history because of Israel’s reluctance to finish it with a decisive operation.
The reason for the dawdling has to do with the tactics of Hamas’s military wing, which present a threat to Israel. Its armaments include a series of fortified intelligent systems located deep inside tunnels and in the heart of a dense civilian population. Moreover, Hamas has a variety of weapons it could use against the Israeli homefront while simultaneously exacting a heavy toll on any IDF ground forces sent into the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’s approach has “skewered” Israel, as military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart put it, on the horns of a triple dilemma: long-term attrition against civilians if Israel maintains its current reality of keeping its soldiers back from occupying Gaza; heavy casualties among IDF soldiers over a long period if they are sent in to put an end to the attacks on Israeli civilians; or preventing heavy military and civilian losses through a massive remote destruction of the enemies’ systems, equipment and operatives, which would entail extensive casualties among the Gaza civilian population used by Hamas as human shields, and could hurt Israel’s international standing as a result.
Hamas has turned the residents of Gaza into pawns in a powerful game and is exploiting them to create a balance of power. This has neutralized the ability of the IDF—one of the most advanced armies in the world—to act and has forced Israel into this brutal war of attrition, which cannot be stopped at a “reasonable” price, as previous wars of attrition could.
Israel cannot live with the strategic helplessness that has been forced upon it by this two-bit terrorist organization and simply wait for a terrorist attack large enough to justify a major operation in Gaza with consequently heavy casualties among civilians in Gaza. Hamas is apparently calculating enough to avoid supplying Israel with such a justification.
We also cannot hide from the fact that rather than beating and deterring Hamas, Hamas is beating and deterring us.
Israel’s strength has not been eliminated through military, political or economic means, but through Hamas’s cynical manipulation of the moral rules that prohibit harming civilians.
However, Israel can rope in the moral system that is being used against it and work its way out of the trap. The key lies in addressing the moral question of whose lives take precedence: theirs or ours? And by answering it decisively: “Ours!”
Once free from the trap it has fallen into, and with universal morality on its side, Israel needs to declare loudly and clearly that the lives of Israelis are more important to it than the lives of its enemies, and needs to launch two operations. The first would be a military one, involving a rapid, temporary ground invasion into the Gaza Strip along routes previously cleared of enemy fire, thus avoiding heavy IDF casualties and preventing unnecessary losses of civilian lives or property. The goal would be to destroy Hamas’s ability to fire rockets at Israel and wipe out the core of Hamas’s wild leadership.
The second operation should be a cultural and moral one, with the goal of bringing the conscience of Israel’s democratic allies in line with universal morality, according to which the entire world should take action against immoral and unconscionable terrorism.
Dr. Hanan Shai is a lecturer in the political-science department at Bar-Ilan University.