From Alan Dowty
Operation Oferet Yetsukah (“Cast Lead,” on the model of “Cast Iron”) has reportedly been planned for months, in anticipation of the breakdown or non-renewal of the tahdi’a (“lull,” not “truce”) between Hamas and Israel. Drawing upon the lessons of the Lebanese fiasco of 2006 and the conclusions of the Winograd Commission, it apparently achieved tactical surprise, hitting almost simultaneously some 150 targets in the Hamas chain of command, from training camps to executive offices. Several top Hamas officials, and inevitably many civilians, are among the several hundred casualties as the operation continues through a second day.
Reservists have been mobilized but it is not clear that anything more than limited ground assaults are planned. With the Mediterranean at their back, Hamas forces could not melt away as did Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the limited aims of this campaign may not require extended ground operations.
Since Hamas took over the area in June 2007, Israel’s basic strategy has been to squeeze Gaza as tightly as possible in order to weaken and eventually uproot Hamas rule. Key to this strategy was economic blockade, allowing in enough supplies for subsistence but little more, and indeed the Gaza economy is prostrate. Consequently what Hamas expected from the “lull” was relief from the blockade, but so long as rocket attacks continued, even at the pace of two-three per week, Israel refused to allow any substantial increase in supplies. And Hamas would not end the Qassam launchings entirely as long as the flow of goods was blocked. Deadlock was thus built into the tahdi’a from the outset, and with its end each side is determined to renew it only on more favorable terms.
The aims of Operation Cast Lead are therefore not just to weaken Hamas, but more immediately to force it to actually end all rocket attacks in the framework of any renewed suspension of hostilities. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says, Israel intends “to totally change the rules of the game.” This is a classic case of what Thomas Schelling long ago defined as “tacit bargaining”: the conduct of negotiation by various measures up to and including armed force. In this “negotiation” Israel enjoys the advantage of another situation defined and enshrined by the strategic theorists: “escalation dominance.” While Israel will pay a considerable political price in the international arena—and even more in the region—it has taken the military confrontation to a level where Hamas has few cards on the table.
Hamas rockets, some of them Katyushas with a range of up to 40 kilometers, now reach well beyond Sderot and Ashkelon up to the outskirts of Ashdod and Beer-Sheva. In the short term, Israel will not be able to stop this barrage, and Hamas is estimated to have up to 1,000 rockets available. In addition, Khaled Meshal has called for a third intifada and the renewal of suicide attacks inside Israel. It is likely, as usual in this part of the world, that things will get worse before they get better. But in the end, the Hamas decision to risk a shooting war with Israel will probably prove to be a losing proposition.