Why Israel Launched a Ground War in Gaza

As published on Politico

Jul 18, 2014

After days of ominous buildup, it’s finally happening: Israel has launched a ground incursion into Gaza. But why, you say? War, what’s it good for? Israel’s Iron Dome has kept the home front safe; Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian cease-fire offer has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the political high ground; and there’s a big risk of losing it if Israel charges into Gaza and ends up killing many more Palestinian civilians. Which it inevitably will. And what’s more, why do the Israelis believe that a ground war will lead to a better outcome than the last one in 2008/9? Hamas still ended up with more lethal, precise and long-range high trajectory weapons.

All true. But despite the risks, the logic—political, psychological and strategic—favored a significant intervention. Here’s why Bibi did it.

1. The military clock

These conflicts have military clocks and diplomatic clocks. And the former was ticking down much faster than the latter. The longer this inconclusive war dragged on, the greater the odds that the stronger party—Israel—would act to change the balance. Hamas is unlikely to agree to a cease-fire without conditions that Israel can’t accept. Sure, Iron Dome has ensured that there were almost no Israeli casualties from Hamas’ rocket attacks. But Netanyahu can’t allow a new status quo in which Israel is subjected to the uncertainties, disruptions and potential casualties of what had become daily rocket attacks, however inaccurate. The responsibility of a government is to guarantee not just security but normalcy. And life isn’t normal today, however inured Israelis have become to it. Moreover, sooner or later Hamas was bound to get lucky. Its missiles, or some terrorists tunneling out of Gaza, would succeed in killing a significant number of Israelis. And if that happened, the clamor on Netanyahu’s right would become a deafening roar. So Bibi had to act now.

2. The rockets didn’t stop

Accurate or not, Hamas has plenty of high trajectory weapons still to be fired. And the fact that they can still launch with impunity after the pounding the Israeli air force has delivered tells you two things. One, Hamas has developed an underground infrastructure that allows launches seemingly impervious to degrading by air; and two, the only way to deal with the threat is to go in and destroy as much of this infrastructure as possible. Sure, two or four years from now, Hamas might restore its arsenal. That’s an important concern, but it doesn’t deal with the reality of now. You want the rockets stopped? Either you put boots on the ground or Hamas agrees to do it.

3. No cease-fire in time

Egypt tried and failed, however insincerely, to get Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. Qatar stuck its nose out, too. But this isn’t just about finding the right mediator. Yes, it’s true that Egypt’s relations have been bad with Hamas ever since the military threw out the Muslim Brotherhood president and elected one of its own. But it’s the substance of what is required for the deal that’s the real problem. Hamas needs to present an image of victory. And Israel is equally determined to deny that image. Hamas wants the border with Egypt opened, salaries for its government workers paid and the release of the 50-plus Hamas guys whom Israel picked up in their recent sweeps of the West Bank. Given enough time—and enough punishment in Gaza—maybe a deal might be worked out. But right now we have a big game of Middle East chicken: Israel will not start negotiating with Hamas and make the terrorist group a winner any more than Hamas will capitulate without a fundamental improvement in economic life for Gaza. Looking around, it’s hard to see who can put this deal together. Qatar’s too close to Hamas; the United States has influence with Israel but not Hamas. The Turks have a rocky relationship with Israel. Israel doesn’t trust the United Nations. And even Egypt would probably like to see Hamas weakened further. So from the Israeli perspective, war-war looked like a better bet than jaw-jaw.

4. Costly but not necessarily ineffective

Dealing with Hamas rockets have never been an either/or situation. An air and a ground campaign can work together in concert. And Israel’s ground incursion has the potential to severely—though not mortally—retard Hamas’ capacity. This need not involve a permanent reoccupation of Gaza and the toppling of the Hamas government. That would take months. If that’s where Israel is headed, good luck—Gaza’s an enclave of 1.7 million angry Palestinians twice the size of Washington, D.C. The smarter move would be to destroy as much of the rocket infrastructure as possible, as quickly as possible, and get the hell out.

The real problem with a ground war isn’t that it won’t work in a tactical sense, it’s the risk of large numbers of innocent Palestinians being killed—and the not inconsiderable question of what the end state will be. Indeed Israel could win the battle, and still lose the political and public relations war, as it did in Operation Cast Lead. Unless someone is prepared to stay in Gaza, extirpate Hamas and then govern there, Hamas will find ways—even if Egypt cracks down further on the tunnels—to restock over time. And no one else—not Egypt, not the Palestinian Authority and certainly not the United Nations—has the legitimacy, the resources or the real desire to govern there, particularly in the wake of an Israeli attack that kills large numbers of Palestinians.

Buckle your seat belts—this could get much worse before it gets worse.

This article was first published on Politico.

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