Why does Israel continue to show such immense restraint in the face of the terror attacks emanating from Gaza? The government’s relatively weak response following the recent Gaza flare-up proved to be a strategic blunder and a missed opportunity by almost every measure.
The escalation in the south repeatedly demonstrated the failure of the IDF to deter terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip from waging war on Israel’s civilians. Whatever sense of deterrence that was achieved during 2008’s Cast Lead has faded considerably, supported by the realization that Hamas and splinter terror organizations within the Strip slowly have reduced Israel’s ability to portray herself as a country that follows through on its declarations to protect her citizens by any possible means.
The Defense Ministry’s response to the rocket fire and guerilla attacks clearly didn’t send a strong enough message to Israel’s enemies in the Strip. How many times will Netanyahu vow that Israel will “retaliate decisively against any attack on our citizens and soldiers,” only to launch limited airstrikes against empty fields, tunnels, or shacks?
The tit-for-tat responses to attacks on Israel’s home-front haven’t produced any substantial results, and they certainly haven’t contributed to any increased level of deterrence. As evident by the most recent attacks, each exchange only emboldens Gaza’s terrorists to act with more ferocity. Each exchange produces more Israeli casualties, disrupts the daily flow of life and damages our infrastructure and economy. Of course, the government doesn’t possibly believe that such violations are reasonable or justified, but in the face of inaction an indecisiveness, one can’t help but wonder if they’re capable to lead us through such grim situations.
Netanyahu’s latest excuse for refusing a ground operation which would significantly increase Israeli deterrence in the face of rocket, mortar, and a guerilla attacks was an apparent “lack of legitimacy.” How humiliating! How many unwarranted civilian deaths are enough to approve such an operation? Apparently, these Israeli lives were somewhat expendable. Excuses about international support and criticism from Egypt fall on the deaf ears of families whose relatives were blown apart from shootouts and rockets falling from Gaza. Though we should always take the international community’s reaction into account. Israeli sovereignty, security and protection must always be at the forefront of our national responsibilities.
Aside from the tragic loss of life and injuries on the Israeli side, the southern economy has come to an effective standstill. One million Israelis - nearly 15% of Israel’s entire population – have been affected by the attacks. The Israeli restraint demonstrates the Israeli government’s inability to adhere to a forceful national defense policy, a policy that they themselves postulate. The simple fact is that hiding behind the Iron Dome – an unsustainable solution due to its hyper-expensive nature - will not convince Israel’s enemies to lay down their arms. Only a harsh, determined response in the form of a major ground operation supported by wide-scale IAF attacks will produce a lasting calm for residents in the region. No one particularly wants such an operation, but that doesn't negate the reality that it may be necessary.
On August 17th, Turkey launched an extensive bombing campaign targeting 60 sites in northern Iraq in response to an ambush by the PKK, in which nine Turkish troops were killed. This was an immediate response to the death of nine soldiers, who are legitimate military targets in warfare. Just one day later, Israel lost six civilians and two soldiers in addition to dozens injured in a cross border raid by a couple dozen terrorists armed with small arms and RPGs. Without hesitation, Turkey demonstrated the national fortitude to eliminate those responsible for attacks on her soldiers. Contrarily, rather than pound the Gaza Strip all of those accountable for the terrorist operation, a limited series of strikes were given approval.
The Israeli Air Force deserves credit for its successful elimination of the Popular Resistance Committee’s leaders, the group believed to be responsible for the attack. However, the limited scope of the strikes were not fierce enough to prevent splinter terror groups from launching volleys of rockets into Israel for a week. In fact, as the Winograd Report later admitted in the aftermath of the 2006 War, only ground forces are capable of both stopping rocket attacks and providing effective deterrence capabilities. These lessons were implemented during Cast Lead and succeeded in achieving over two years of relative calm. Unfortunately, deterrence eventually erodes, and a stark reminder must be given in order for terror groups to realize there are severe repercussions for targeting Israeli civilians.
Unless the Israeli government starts following through against terrorist incidents in Gaza “with all our strength and determination,” as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has threatened, the attacks originating from the Strip will increase in boldness and frequency. For any deterrence to be effective, the enemy must perceive the threats as credible. It seems perfectly clear at this moment that these groups don’t believe the words of our government ministers. Frankly, it isn’t surprising given our failure to deliver.
The terrorist organizations are certainly clever, as they believe – perhaps correctly - that Israel’s hands are at least partially tied by the international community. How much more clever it would be for us to prove them wrong in their assumption.