The arguments against a wide-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip are understandable. Hamas is deeply rooted in the local population, and chances of rooting it out are slim. The fear of casualties and complications is also understandable, as is the priority currently being given to the strategic challenges Israel faces on its northern front.
For these and other reasons, Israel is currently using limited force against Hamas, even in light of the recent border breach. This tactic is designed to reduce its ability to cause Israel harm. Right now, the Israel Defense Forces’ preferred use of force is “intelligence fire”—precision strikes (usually from the air) based on detailed intelligence, with the aim being to change Hamas’s behavior. This approach also prevents Israel casualties.
Unfortunately, however, Israel has not secured quiet on the Gaza border. Instead there has been an escalation of violence, and longer-lasting states of emergency in western Negev communities. Besides the serious economic costs involved, there is also a sense that the other side has won a victory. The enemy is also exerting itself to prevent precise information from reaching the IDF and to render Israeli strikes less effective through fortifications, spreading itself out, hiding, and using human shields.
Hamas understands that Israel is disinclined to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and senses that it can continue its violent clashes with Israel without paying a heavy price.
But it seems that Israel has no choice but to make Hamas pay dearly from time to time, and it would appear that a short-term ground operation will bring better results than Israel’s approach thus far. We need to maneuver inside enemy territory, locate and destroy them, and smash the myth of “popular resistance.” The “intelligence fire” efforts are important, but cannot serve as anything other than support for the main effort, which must take place on the ground.
The IDF needs to be prepared to carry out a quick, broad move. First, it is important to take territory that serves as a base for terrorist organizations, eradicating their freedom of action. Rocket fire on Israeli citizens will slow down only when Israeli forces are in control of the area, wipe out the enemy forces and prevent rockets from being fired.
Second, maneuverability is a key element in securing deterrence. The enemy can withstand heavy damage from airstrikes, which do not endanger its rule. On the other hand, the occupation of a significant swath of territory is a much more serious challenge. To bolster deterrence, it is vital to demonstrate the ability to maneuver and secure a decisive victory, which would also smash the enemy’s belief that Israeli society is weak and afraid of losses.
A high level of combat engagement comes at a cost, but a relatively short battle time could result in fewer casualties, both in Gaza and on the home front.
Finally, ground maneuvers are key to defeating a conventional military, and that is a threat that could come to pass on Israel’s other fronts. Developing the army’s ground capabilities requires time, whereas ignoring them is a dangerous gamble.
There is also a moral aspect to the choice of a ground operation in Gaza—we cannot accept a situation in which civilians form a protective ring around the IDF.
Major operations, to take place every so often, will secure temporary deterrence that will allow long-term ceasefires and give the residents of the western Negev quiet. The Israeli public must realize that the Gaza situation cannot be solved in the blink of an eye. It can only be addressed through a long-term military struggle in which victory will come in stages. Israel’s ability to wage a war of attrition in Gaza and retain a variety of options for action is testimony to its power.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Institute.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.