Israel entered the latest Gaza campaign almost without a choice, having come under intense rocket fire from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and following a period of perceived erosion of deterrence. The assassination of three senior PIJ leaders in the first hours of the operation achieved its overarching objective. The combination of Israelis’ stamina and the Iron Dome managed to frustrate the PIJ’s efforts to change the balance of power in its favor. However, Operation “Shield and Arrow” was not designed to fundamentally change the situation in Gaza, but only to bring about another period of relative calm.
To truly transform the situation, Israel would have to carry out a major and protracted operation deep inside Gaza. The cost might not be worth it. The alternative to such a campaign is the repeated cycles of violence Israel and the Palestinians engage in. The drawbacks are clear and plenty, but if we want to make the most of the rounds of hostilities we have to use the relative periods of calm they provide to engage in a methodic, low-profile campaign to stop the terrorists from getting more powerful.
When the ceasefire is declared for the umpteenth time, the senior leadership of Hamas and PIJ always emerge from their hideouts, having been spared from the “martyrs list” of the previous rounds. They tour the ruins and pose for pictures with the flags of their organizations, waxing lyrical about how they managed to withstand the force of the Zionist enemy and how “our fighters dealt a crushing blow that generated fear all over.”
As they engage in the war on the hearts and minds, their military commanders will try to learn the lessons of the fighting and find replacements to fill in the ranks of the organization and to build strength for the next outbreak of hostilities. Meanwhile, without having to wait for orders, operations will resume in one of the areas that are key to the success of terrorist organizations: weapons manufacturing.
The efforts to manufacture weapons will increase and the pace will accelerate in order to replenish the stockpiles and prepare for the next round. The goal: more rocket fire that will reach farther and be more precise and lethal. Most of the weapons and munitions used against Israel are made in Gaza using imported material, either from Israel or from Egypt. In some cases, these are dual-use imports that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. Israel allows their transfer to Gaza for legitimate usage but then they are seized by terrorist organizations and end up in the local arms manufacturing workshops.
Israel’s policy on Gaza has to strike a balance between the two competing interests. On the one hand, Israel wants to improve Gazans’ well-being and address their humanitarian concerns, in part because this makes it clear that they have a lot to lose if they engage in conflict. On the other hand, it wants to make it harder for terrorists to arm themselves.
But the decision-making process in this regard is complex and could lead to Israel preferring the immediate calm over the long-term calculus that seeks to deny terrorists weapons.
This could be because of the many challenges this balancing act presents: First, fighting the terrorists often appears to be a vain effort; they already possess so many weapons. Second, it is hard to truly monitor what enters the area. Third, because of boiling frog syndrome: You don’t feel an urgency when things get worse gradually. Fourth is that sometimes there is a clear tendency to fall in love with the relative calm, which dovetails with the desire to minimize the amount of energy you use on various fronts.
Precisely because of this, the ceasefire should come with stringent conditions as well as a mechanism to monitor the terrorists’ buildup and to stop it. We must set a clear goal for our security forces that they must stop the buildup as well as disrupt it, making it a major objective for the “campaign between the wars.” They must be told to present a comprehensive plan that would have clear and methodic measures of success.
Israel must also impose stricter conditions on issuing permits for the import into Gaza of dual-use materials and demand that Egypt adopt a similar policy on its border with Gaza. Israel must also devise a comprehensive plan to target the terrorist arms manufacturing infrastructure. It must be designed in a way that meets the economic needs of Gaza and is commensurate with the overall arrangements Israel agreed to, and it must have clear benchmarks and take advantage of opportunities that come up to strike the relevant assets.
Calm is essential if we want to focus on other challenges and lead a healthy and normal life, as well as grow and thrive. The organizations in Gaza need it in order to improve their capabilities for the next conflict. The more we use those lulls to prevent their amassing of strength in Gaza, the longer those lulls will be and the less intense the hostilities are when they break.
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security adviser and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021, and prior to that for 30 years in the Israel Security Agency.
Originally published in Israel Hayom.