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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
[Public disappointment over ceasefire strengthens deterrence] Operation Pillar of Defense: An Initial Strategic and Military Assessment, by Dr. Eitan Shamir

The disappointment expressed by the public for not mounting a ground
offensive into Gaza signals to Hamas the level of determination of Israeli
society and thus contributes to Israel’s deterrence. Israel is less
casualty-sensitive than generally believed and is willing to risk the lives
of its soldiers in order to protect itself.

Operation Pillar of Defense:
An Initial Strategic and Military Assessment

by Dr. Eitan Shamir

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 189, December 4, 2012
http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/docs/perspectives189.pdf

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel’s achievements in Operation Pillar of Defense
include its ability to surprise Hamas, kill its military leader, and destroy
most of its strategic assets. The performance of the Iron Dome anti-missile
system and Israel’s civilian defense also proved impressive. An important
gain for Israel is a reduced fear of repercussions in the aftermath of an
attack on Iran. The operation in Gaza also proved Israel’s determination to
act forcefully in the post “Arab Spring” environment. However, the lack of a
ground offensive allowed Hamas to craft a victory narrative and the
potential to re-arm. The next round is only a matter of time.

Israel’s declared objectives in Operation Pillar of Defense were limited: to
cripple Hamas’ military capabilities, restore its deterrence, and return
quiet to the communities of the South. The operation ended with a ceasefire
agreement brokered by Egypt, with US involvement. While the details of the
agreement are still vague, it is possible to offer an initial assessment of
the achievements and shortcomings of the operation. As history in the region
indicates, the facts on the ground dictate reality more than any agreements
signed on paper.

Strategic and Military Achievements

Israel’s deception tactics were useful to surprise Hamas regarding the
timing and the scale of the attack. Excellent intelligence and the element
of surprise enabled the destruction of most of Hamas’ strategic assets,
primarily its long-range Fajr-5 rockets, and the elimination of Ahmed
al-Jabari, the Hamas supreme military commander. Israel was also successful
in eliminating many junior Hamas terrorists.

Israel’s defensive measures, both active and passive proved successful. Iron
Dome intercepted 422 rockets that were fired into urban areas, an 88 percent
success rate. The 58 rockets that did fall in these areas killed only three
civilians, reflecting the disciplined behavior of the civilian population,
which carefully followed the instructions issued by civil defense
authorities.

During the Gaza operation the IDF took much care to limit collateral damage
and reduce the number of civilian casualties in Gaza. The accuracy in
hitting only military targets was a remarkable success. The civilian
casualties constituted less than half of the overall number killed (about
110-130 combatants versus around 50 civilians). In comparison, the US and
its allies kill five or six civilians for one combatant in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The low number of civilian casualties significantly eased
international pressure on Israel.

Given the changes in the Arab world following the “Arab Spring,”
specifically in Egypt, there were many voices that questioned Israel’s
ability to mount any military action in the region. Israel proved that when
its national security is at stake it will not hesitate to act. Moreover,
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi proved pragmatic and, despite his militant
rhetoric, restrained Hamas.

Israel also enjoyed American diplomatic support and backing. This support
proved wrong the concerns raised by some commentators for a possible “cold
shoulder” turned towards Israel by the Obama administration in its second
term. The relationship between the two countries, so dear to Israel’s
security, has been proven solid.

The disappointment expressed by the public for not mounting a ground
offensive into Gaza signals to Hamas the level of determination of Israeli
society and thus contributes to Israel’s deterrence. Israel is less
casualty-sensitive than generally believed and is willing to risk the lives
of its soldiers in order to protect itself.

The operation in Gaza also has ramifications for Iran, Israel’s current
strategic priority. In a future military operation against Iran’s nuclear
facilities, either by Israel and/or the US, Iran has promised to return in
kind through its proxies Hamas and Hizballah. Iran has supplied these groups
with thousands of rockets and has trained them to become launching pads for
rocket attacks against Israel. By destroying the bulk of Hamas’ long-range
rockets and demonstrating its ability to defend its population centers,
Israel has one front less to worry about in the case of an Iranian
retaliation. Israel will be freer to focus its efforts on Iran.

Operational and Long-Term Shortcomings

The timing for such an operation is critical, as it burns intelligence, and
it will take time to restore full intelligence in Gaza. Employing only
targeted air and naval power has serious limitations that one needs to
consider. The initial attack accomplished the major gains while the most
valuable targets were hit; however, as the operation continued there were
less and less valuable targets to hit. The only way to keep momentum is
through a ground operation.

Israel’s lack of desire to launch a ground offensive is due to the high cost
of increased casualties on both sides. It also means mounting international
pressure and a potential de-legitimization campaign. In addition, Israel
does not want to re-assume control over Gaza and its population. However,
only a large ground offensive, in which Israel must destroy the capabilities
of Hamas and other terror groups, can eliminate the threat from Gaza and
re-establish deterrence.

In the absence of a ground operation Israel faces two problems. First, Hamas
was able to claim victory on the grounds that Israel was deterred from
conducting a ground offensive. It is not clear whether Hamas believes its
own story; however, this might encourage Hamas and the other terror groups
to continue to provoke Israel. The second and more serious problem is that
only a ground offensive that regains operational control over all or parts
of Gaza can stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Everything short of
presence on the ground will not be effective. Under the current
circumstances one should expect that in a short period, as past experience
indicates, Hamas will restore and improve its operational capability. The
next round is only a matter of time.
====
Dr. Eitan Shamir is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University
and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family

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