By Yaakov Lappin
The mass-murder rampage conducted by Hamas death squads on southern communities in Gaza on Saturday has seen Israel unleash unprecedented air power against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, but it is clear that this is only a prelude to further Israeli action.
The Israeli security cabinet will have received a number of options from the Israel Defense Forces for the type, scope and objectives of the military campaign that Israel will choose as its response to the atrocities. Meanwhile, calls to investigate the multiple, catastrophic failures of intelligence and operational readiness will be placed on hold until after the war.
Whatever the security cabinet ends up choosing, it will have to order a major ground maneuver in order to destroy the Hamas terror army and regime, following the horrific war crimes it rained down on Israeli southern communities.
Any action short of this would undermine Israel’s strategic standing in the Middle East and form a green light for Hezbollah, Iran and other adversaries to attack as well.
The security cabinet released a statement on Sunday after convening and making a series of operational decisions, and stated that its goal is “to achieve the destruction of the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in a way that will preclude their ability and willingness to threaten and attack the citizens of Israel for many years.”
That statement alone entails a ground operation since none of those goals can be accomplished from the air alone.
As such, the IDF is amassing armored, artillery and infantry formations along Gaza’s border, as it waits for further instructions.
With the last of the defensive stages of the IDF’s retaking of the south being complete on Monday, the cabinet’s likely choices are more about long-term actions.
The cleansing of Gaza of Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, headed by Mohammed Deif, and its regime apparatus, headed by Yahya Sinwar, will likely take many weeks and months. It will involve intense urban warfare combat, going street to street, and destroying Hamas’s terrorist squads in their bunkers, tunnels and multi-story buildings.
To put things in perspective, “Operation Defensive Shield,” launched by Israel in Judea and Samaria in 2002 following a murderous wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings, took some three years to complete.
Israel will have to also think about the day after a ground maneuver in Gaza. To that end, one option will be to install an Israeli military administration in the Gaza Strip following the first weeks and months of the operation.
A second option would be to withdraw from Gaza in a number of months, but to keep launching cross-border raids and airstrikes to prevent Hamas from building up its force.
The first option — that of a military administration — seems more likely in light of the fact that the concept of withdrawing and enabling Hamas to rear its head again seems unfathomable in the fallout from Saturday’s mass slaughter.
Any concept of Fatah taking over Gaza in the near future will not be realistic since it will not want to ride into Gaza “on Israeli tanks” and lose its legitimacy.
However, in the long-term future achieving a degree of Palestinian autonomy in Gaza together with an IDF presence there and full freedom of action, to prevent the rise of any new Islamist-jihadist terror army, could emerge. That is too far in the future to contemplate now, however, as the impending war takes center stage.
A completely different scope
The transformative nature of the current situation was expressed on Monday morning by IDF International Spokesperson Lt. Col Richard Hecht, who stated: “The scope of this thing is completely different.”
By then, the IDF struck more than 1,000 targets in Gaza and was still clearing seven to eight zones in southern Israel that had terrorists in them.
Several hundred terrorists were killed, both in Israel and Gaza.
Hecht named Kfar Aza, Kibbutz Be’eri, Nirim, Alumim, Sha’ar Hanegev and Holit as places where there is still fighting with terrorists.
The IDF has deployed four divisions — an enormous amount of military force — to the south, as it completes its defensive posture while acknowledging that this phase of neutralizing terror squads took longer than it originally assessed.
Airstrikes were focused on the Gazan regions of Beit Hanoun and Shajiah, in northern and eastern Gaza, respectively, which were used as Hamas staging areas by murder squads trying to get into Israel.
In addition to the four divisions sent south, the IDF is focusing a mobilization effort to the north, while also moving many battalions inside of Israel to prevent a “Guardian of the Walls” type scenario of mass internal disturbances in Arab-Israeli areas.
The IDF has secured some 20 breach points on the border, holding them with tanks and air cover, but was still dealing with a trickle of terrorists entering from Gaza early on Monday.
“There are major generals with infantry soldiers in the field fighting,” said Hecht. The evacuation of southern communities was well underway by Monday.
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.