Israel's patience with Hamas finally snapped on December 27, 2008. The
government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv finally took the momentous
decision that it was no longer possible politically, militarily or morally to
endure the constant barrage of Hamas missiles on its citizens in the south of
This closely followed the deliberate refusal by Hamas on December 19 to renew
the already shaky ceasefire of the previous six months.
International condemnation of Israel's actions swiftly followed. However to
many neutral observers and indeed to the majority of
Israelis, much of this wave of criticism appears to be both cynical and unjust.
For many of those states and individuals at the forefront of the protests have
displayed a noticeable lack of concern over Hamas' terrorist attacks.
Similarly those same critics have shown a spectacular indifference to the
plight of nearly a million Israeli civilians forced to live under the constant
threat of Hamas missiles and suicide bombers.
Hamas had simply pushed its luck too far by continuing to deliberately target
soft Israeli civilian targets.
Operation Cast Lead
On the night of Saturday January 3, the next and most dangerous stage of
Operation Cast Lead began under the GOC (General Officer Commanding) of the
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Southern Command, Major General Yoav Galant.
The ground invasion by perhaps as many as five columns of armor, mechanized
infantry, engineers and artillery penetrated Gaza, quickly isolating the two
Hamas brigades, each 1,200 strong, in Gaza City and the northern border area
from the three similar-sized brigades in the central Khan Yunis and Rafah
This followed a week of ferocious aerial bombardment by Israeli fighter-bombers
and attack helicopters aimed largely at destroying missile storage and
manufacturing facilities, command center and the control of the political and
The IDF has called up over 10,000 reservists to bring the units of the Southern
Command based in Beersheba up to strength. These include:
The 366th Amud ha-Esh (Pillar of Fire) Reserve Armored Division
The 252nd Sinai Reserve Armored Division
The 80th Edom Territorial Infantry Division
The 96th Gaza (Southern Foxes) Territorial Infantry Division.
It is also reported that many thousands of additional reservists have been
called up to strengthen the Northern Command in the event of any attempt by
Hezbollah to take the pressure off their Hamas allies by staging a fresh round
of missile attacks and cross-border raids.
However, its seems that parts of several regular units from the Northern
Command have also been brought in to spearhead the assault including tank
battalion 75 of the elite 7th Armored Brigade and combat teams from the 1st
Golani Infantry Brigade.
In addition special forces, paratroops and covert reconnaissance units have
been widely deployed for difficult missions, particularly in the south around
Rafah and Philadelphi in search-and-destroy operations against the huge network
of Hamas tunnels that run under the Egyptian border.
These are used to smuggle vast amounts of weapons into Gaza and hide much of
the Hamas military infrastructure.
One of the most important single aspects of the Israeli ground action will
undoubtedly be the intensely difficult and probably lengthy process of trying
to deny the border areas to the highly mobile and easily hidden Hamas missile
Despite the enormous firepower available to the IDF, Operation Cast Lead was
generally being developed slowly and methodically in order to try and minimize
Palestinian civilian casualties.
It was soon to be halted temporarily at the outskirts of Netzarim, Jebalya, the
Zeitun refugee camp, Beit Hanoun to the north and Gaza City itself.
There appeared to be a marked and justified reluctance to rush into combat
within the built-up areas of Gaza City.
Once the decision was taken however, the intense training that the Israeli
Infantry have undertaken to rectify the weaknesses exposed against the
Hezbollah guerrilla warfare tactics in South Lebanon in 2006 may be expected to
somewhat limit Israeli casualties.
However, casualties there will still be, as Israel must expect to meet a
considerable level of resistance from heavily armed, well-prepared and highly
motivated Hamas fighters.
What Israel seeks to achieve
Quite clearly Israel wants to significantly degrade the Hamas military
capability to hit Israeli civilian targets, to disrupt its control over Gaza
and above all to prevent it rearming.
In addition to creating a sanitized area free of missile-launching sites inside
the northern and eastern borders with Israel, other units will attempt to
destroy ammunition dumps, missile holding areas, terrorist training camps and
the tunnels used to both smuggle arms and hide much of the Hamas military
Snatch squads will probably be targeting many of the Hamas leadership
previously identified by Mossad and Arabic-speaking undercover units.
While Hamas is not as heavily armed with sophisticated weapons as its ally
Hezbollah, its armories are still bursting at the seams with tens of thousands
of modern automatic rifles including many AK variants and over 7,000 US M16s.
Machine guns, 120mm heavy mortars, RPG7 and RPG18 anti-tank rocket launchers,
tons of military high explosives, anti-tank mines and 14.5mm anti-aircraft
weapons are also available in large numbers.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that in addition to the several hundred Iranian or
Hamas-manufactured portable rockets used to bombard Israel, Hamas may have
small quantities of relatively modern guided anti-tank weapons (AF5 Konkurs and
AT3 Sagger) and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (SA7 variants).
So far, there has been little serious contact between the Israeli forces and
the Hamas brigades dug in within densely populated areas and therefore the
combat capability of the Palestinian units remains high.
To achieve its aim, the IDF will have to take Operation Cast Lead deep into
Gaza City in particular where Hamas strategists believe the Israelis will be at
their most vulnerable.
In addition, the IDF forces will face the constant threat posed by small groups
of Hamas fighters which hide among the civilian population during the day,
emerging mostly at night to make hit-and-run raids, plant booby-traps and IED
(improvised explosive devices) and carry out suicide bombings.
Israel's past attempts are not overly impressive, while the IDF has a proven
track record against the conventional forces of Arab states, it has been
distinctly lacking any form of genuine capability when it comes to COIN
Lebanon in 1982 and the long occupation of Lebanon's southern area; previous
assaults on Gaza and in particular November 2006 and the anti-Hezbollah
operations in Lebanon also in 2006 have all highlighted this weakness.
Undoubtedly, Israel gave Hezbollah a bloody nose in 2006, but largely because
of conflicting aims, confused planning and vacillating political leadership,
victory was allowed to slip from its grasp.
Among the military leadership there was too much reliance on the effectiveness
of air power, a misuse of armored units in highly unsuitable terrain and a
chronic lack of infantry properly trained in counter-insurgency and guerrilla
Many of these failures were addressed in the aftermath of the conflict and most
are believed to have been rectified to a large extent.
However, the operational effectiveness of the IDF will be tested to the full in
fighting in built-up areas if and when the Israeli forces finally enter the
densely packed streets of Gaza City and Khan Yunis.
Other reasons for the attack
The Palestinians have a long record of terrorism dating more than 40 years;
hijacking three airliners to Dawson's Field in 1970 and Munich Olympic 1972
massacre, for instance.
It spawned numerous terrorist groups such as Fatah, the PFLP and Black
September with charismatic leaders such Yasser Arafat, Abu Nidal and George
What has changed significantly in recent years has been the looming presence of
Iran. Tehran is seen by Washington, Tel Aviv and a growing number of moderate
Arab states as extending its power west to the Mediterranean by using proxy
groups such as Hezbollah and indeed Hamas.
These extremist Islamic "mercenaries" are suitably funded, armed and trained by
the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, the support organization of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian state secret service, MOIS
(Ministry of Intelligence and Security).
Both Washington and Tel Aviv appear to believe that if there is to be any
serious long-term chance of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, then Hamas
extremism must be removed.
Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are widely believed to be appalled by
the threat of a militant Iran.
Despite the public condemnation of Israel, privately there can be little doubt
that these states would heave a collective sigh of relief if Israel succeeded
in destroying Hamas as an effective military threat and thereby blunting
Tehran's plans for expansion.
How long may it last
Israel appears to have been moving more slowly, at least in the initial ground
incursion, than is militarily sensible, but it feels that the risk to its own
troops is acceptable in order to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties.
Israel may well find it difficult to achieve a clearly defined victory and may
eventually be further muddied by an internationally brokered ceasefire imposed
by increasing anxious Western leaders.
However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday, "Hamas has so far
sustained a very heavy blow from us, but we have yet to achieve our objective
and therefore the operation continues."
So it would therefore appear unlikely that Israel will be willing to quickly
accede to international pressure before significant damage has been done to
This must include to its ability to fire missiles at civilian targets deep
within Israel and perhaps most importantly there must be some form of genuine,
enforceable guarantee available that Iran will not be allowed to re-arm Hamas
for a future resumption of the conflict.
The bigger picture
Hamas, like it's Fatah and Black September predecessors, is a dangerous
organization. Like Hezbollah in the Lebanon, it is trained, armed and very
largely directed by the Islamic regime in Tehran.
There are unconfirmed reports that al-Qaeda had also been seeking to establish
a base in Gaza in a further move to turn the area into a terrorist hotbed on
the borders of both Israel and Egypt, and significantly with easier access to
the whole Mediterranean area. (See
Al-Qaeda sniffs opportunity in Gaza Asia Times Online, January 7,
In the ongoing conflict against international terrorism, Israel's actions in
Gaza could be argued as being in the best interests of both the Western
democracies and the moderate Islamic world.
The only likely and workable long-term ceasefire that can be negotiated is for
Hamas to be disarmed by an acceptable international peace force or to agree
independently to a deal perhaps brokered by a third party, to permanently stop
firing missiles at Israel.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has clearly stated that
"Preventing a Hamas arms build-up is the necessary foundation of any new calm
arrangement. That is the make-or-break issue."
It is one of the very few certainties in this troubled region that given those
guarantees Israel would happily and promptly stop wasting its bombs and the
lives of its soldiers on Gaza.
Egypt would seem the most likely candidate to act as a third party and indeed
it was reported that a Hamas team arrived in Cairo on Monday.
This was among signs that despite the belligerent rhetoric still coming from
its remaining leaders, Hamas has indeed been shocked by the scale of Israel's
military response and is now fighting for its very survival.
Richard M Bennett, intelligence and security analyst,