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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza – November 2012): Objectives and Implications

Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza – November 2012): Objectives and
Michael Herzog, January 21, 2013
Jerusalem Issue Brief
Vol. 13, No. 2 January 21, 2013

-Both in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead and in the 2012 Operation Pillar
of Defense, Israel’s government focused its objective on enhancing
deterrence – opting for hitting the terrorists hard enough to give them an
interest in a ceasefire for as long as possible – rather than dismantling
Gaza’s terror infrastructure or toppling the Hamas government.

-Already in Cast Lead the IDF told the government that a Defensive
Shield-type operation (as in the West Bank in 2002) to eliminate Gaza’s
terror infrastructure, while possible, would require significant forces and
could take many months. Then the problem would arise: what would be Israel’s
exit strategy?

-The 2012 operation was carried out against the background of dramatic
changes in the region, with Israel facing a potential undermining of the
fragile peace with a different, Islamist Egypt; uncertainties along Israel’s
northern borders with Syria and Lebanon; and an ongoing critical situation
regarding Iran. Given all these considerations, the government was right to
determine more limited objectives, and successful in achieving them without
resorting to a ground operation.

-While fault-lines between Sunnis and Shiites are heating up across the
region, Hamas still draws on both camps. Even though Hamas has replaced its
Iranian political and economic umbrella with a Sunni one provided by Egypt,
Qatar, and Turkey, it still receives weapons from Iran, which now publicly
and proudly takes credit for it; Iran wants it known that it does more than
the Sunni states to aid Hamas’ anti-Israel struggle.

-If it has the requisite political will, Hamas is capable of enforcing the
ceasefire on all factions in Gaza, including jihadi groups that were the
main escalating engine leading to Operation Pillar of Defense. Hamas has
been trying to maneuver between its responsibilities as a government and its
wish to sustain its standing as a resistance movement. Operation Pillar of
Defense compelled Hamas to make a choice.

-Coupled with its Egyptian sponsor’s interest in stability, Hamas now feels
compelled to observe the ceasefire. The result, for the time being, is
unprecedented quiet along the Israel-Gaza border. To sustain that ceasefire,
however, it is essential to get Egypt to effectively stop the smuggling of
weapons through its territory into Gaza.

The objectives and implications of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in
Gaza during November 14-21, 2012, can only be assessed in the wider context
of the new Middle East that has emerged from the earthquake known as the
Arab Spring.

Israel’s Announced Objectives

The objectives defined by Israel’s top political leadership were rather
modest. As articulated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the outset of the
operation, they were to enhance Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas and
other factions in Gaza; to deny Hamas and these other factions certain
strategic capabilities, especially longer-range rockets; and to restore
normalcy to the life of Israeli citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom had
been driven into shelters by the daily barrage of rockets. Some claim these
objectives were too modest; in actuality, they were well calibrated.

An asymmetric war against an organization such as Hamas, that is at one and
the same time a terror organization, a political party, and a paramilitary
group both nesting in civilian-populated areas and targeting civilians,
constitutes a difficult challenge. Two different kinds of objectives may be
set for such an operation. On the one hand, one can focus the objective on
enhancing deterrence, namely, hit the terrorists hard enough to give them an
interest in a ceasefire for as long as possible, deny them certain
capabilities, and weaken their motivation to employ violence against you. On
the other hand, one can set a more ambitious, maximalist objective of
dismantling their terror capabilities. In this case, that would have
entailed a ground operation in Gaza comparable to Operation Defensive Shield
in the West Bank at the height of the Second Intifada, which would have
required very large-scale forces operating in Gaza for a long period.

Both in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead and in the 2012 Operation Pillar
of Defense, Israel’s government opted for the first objective, not the more
ambitious one of dismantling Gaza’s terror infrastructure or even toppling
the Hamas government. In 2008, the Israeli government debated the same
issue. Although some officials pushed for a broader operation in Gaza,
ultimately the government decided not to go too far, even though it did
order a ground operation. The IDF had told the government that a Defensive
Shield-type operation to eliminate Gaza’s terror infrastructure would take
many months – some even said a year; and subsequently a difficult problem
would arise: to whom would Gaza be handed over, and what would be Israel’s
exit strategy?

The 2012 operation, carried out against the background of a dramatically
transformed Middle East, posed even more complex challenges, including the
possible undermining of the fragile peace with Egypt. Israel also faces
uncertainties along its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon, and an
ongoing critical situation regarding Iran’s nuclear program which may come
to a head in a matter of months. Given all these considerations, the
government was right to determine more limited objectives. It appears that
the basic objective was achieved: Hamas was hit hard militarily, resulting
for the time being in nearly absolute quiet along Israel’s border with Gaza.

Facing a Complex Aftermath

The realities, however, are still more nuanced and complex. What happened in
Gaza is a microcosm of current developments in the Middle East, where new
forces have arisen. The most prominent is political Islam, first and
foremost the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt that must be taken into
account when dealing with Gaza. When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in
2008, the Hosni Mubarak-led Egyptian government quietly encouraged Israel to
destroy Hamas, and expressed disappointment when this was not accomplished.

The situation now, of course, is different; Hamas is essentially the
Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in a sense heralded the rise
of political Islam by winning the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary
elections and then taking over Gaza in a bloody coup in June 2007. Whereas
Mubarak’s government regarded Hamas as a threat to Egypt’s national
security, the government of President Muhammad Morsi provides the Hamas
regime with a political umbrella, and Israel was well aware that it had to
maneuver in a different environment for Operation Pillar of Defense.

Moreover, an alignment of major Sunni powers in the region, including Qatar
and Turkey, now joins Egypt and provides Hamas with an even wider umbrella.
Already before Pillar of Defense, all these actors were helping Hamas break
out of its political isolation and economic hardship. In October, the emir
of Qatar made the first-ever state visit to Hamas in Gaza, pledging $450
million in financial support. Turkey, too, has given Hamas both political
and financial support.

Major Sunni powers have been cooperating with the United States and the West
on important issues and particularly against Iran and global jihadi
elements; at the same time, these Sunni powers support Islamist actors in
the region, including Islamist forces in Syria and Hamas in Gaza. In Egypt’s
parliamentary elections, Qatar extended financial support to the Muslim
Brotherhood and the Saudis funneled aid to the Salafists. Thus the West
faces a serious challenge: major regional forces, that are considered allies
in advancing and safeguarding important Western interests, support
inherently anti-democracy and anti-West Islamists at the expense of more
liberal national forces.

In the case of Hamas, there is a security advantage to this situation,
alongside its very basic disadvantages. As evident during the recent crisis,
Egypt would like to provide Hamas with political achievements. Yet, at the
same time, as long as Cairo – sponsor to the ceasefire – wants to maintain a
quiet border between Israel, Gaza, and Egypt and curb jihadi forces
threatening the status quo there, and with Hamas having an affinity with the
Morsi government contrary to its relations with Mubarak, the chances of
Hamas upholding a ceasefire are greater, at least for the time being. In
other words, a kind of trade-off emerges: Hamas offers quiet, and receives
political and economic assistance from its supporters.

In the broader regional context, increased tensions along the Sunni-Shiite
fault line constitute a major phenomenon in this new Middle East. It is
evident almost everywhere – in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and even in
Saudi Arabia where there is a significant Shiite minority in the oil-rich
Eastern Province. It is all the more evident in the relations between the
major Sunni powers and Iran. In this regard, however, Gaza is a very unique
case. Hamas in Gaza, even though a Sunni movement, was part of the radical,
mostly-Shiite axis led by Iran along with Syria and Hizbullah. But since the
outbreak of the Arab Spring, with Hamas unable to support Bashar al-Assad’s
Alawite regime in Syria, tensions have arisen between Hamas and Iran, with
Hamas declining in favor and losing financial support. When it comes to
fighting Israel, however, Iran continues to back Hamas.

Hence, even though Hamas has replaced its Iranian political and economic
umbrella with a Sunni one provided by Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, it still
receives weapons from Iran. And even though the Sunni and Shiite camps are
fighting each other, both, in different ways, provide assistance to Hamas in
standing against Israel.

Interestingly, whereas in the past the Iranians would never admit supplying
weapons to Hamas in Gaza, following the recent crisis they have publicly and
proudly taken credit for it, and Hamas leaders have openly acknowledged it
as well. The Iranians’ new candor can be explained by their concern about
the Sunni umbrella. They want the credit for what is perceived across the
Arab world as a successful show of resistance by Hamas during Israel’s
operation in Gaza, including the targeting of Tel Aviv. They want it to be
known that they give Hamas a more important kind of aid; whereas the Sunni
states may have extended some financial support to Hamas, what Hizbullah
leader Hassan Nasrallah mockingly called “a penny and a half,” Iran provides
the real thing – weapons, enabling Hamas to carry out the resistance against
Israel. In other words, it is Iran that does more for Hamas’ anti-Israel

Extremist Islamists on the Rise

The events in Gaza highlight another aspect of the Arab Spring: the
unleashing of the energies not only of so-called mainstream Islamic
political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, but also of more extreme
Salafist and jihadi streams. Such groups are resurgent across the Middle
East; in North Africa (including the killing of the U.S. ambassador in
Libya), in Egypt (whose parliament now includes Salafists for the first
time), in Jordan (which recently thwarted major jihadi terror attacks on its
soil), in Iraq (experiencing a significant spike in the level of terrorism)
and in Syria (where Jabhat Al-Nusra, an off-shoot of Iraqi al-Qaeda, is the
most potent anti-Assad fighting force).

Over the past few years jihadi groups have also mushroomed in Gaza and
Sinai, cooperating with each other in planning and perpetrating attacks
against Israeli targets from both areas. Indeed, these jihadi groups’
provocations were the main cause of the escalation between Israel and Gaza.
Hamas was drawn in so as to maintain its credentials as a resistance
movement, until finally Israel was compelled to launch Operation Pillar of

At present the challenge, first and foremost for the Hamas government in
Gaza, is to enforce a ceasefire on all these groups. That was one of the
Israeli conditions when negotiating the ceasefire, and the Egyptian document
announcing and sponsoring the ceasefire made it binding on all factions in
Gaza, with Hamas bearing ultimate responsibility. If it has the requisite
political will, Hamas is capable of guaranteeing the ceasefire. It is such
political will that has been lacking so far, with Hamas trying to maneuver
between its responsibilities as a government and its wish to sustain its
standing as a resistance movement. Operation Pillar of Defense, however,
compelled Hamas to make a choice, and so far the organization has been
enforcing the ceasefire on all the other groups.

The Palestinian Authority in Decline?

Another aspect of the changes underway in the Middle East is the tension
between Islamists and nationalists, and it is well evident in the
Palestinian context. Although Hamas was decisively beaten militarily, in the
political sphere it scored points, mainly because of the above-mentioned
Sunni political and economic umbrella it receives. At the same time, the
Palestinian Authority was totally marginalized during the Gaza crisis. While
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was in Cairo meeting with Morsi to work out the
ceasefire terms, PA President Mahmoud Abbas tried to call Morsi – who would
not take his call for five days. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
came to Israel and Egypt to help craft the ceasefire, she visited Abbas in
Ramallah for all of thirty minutes. It was also to extricate itself from
this complete marginalization, exacerbated by the events in Gaza, that the
Palestinian Authority went to the United Nations.

It remains to be seen how things will play out in the Palestinian context.
Over the past few years, the West’s and Israel’s approach has been to
highlight the differences between the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority,
on the one hand, and Gaza, on the other. It was to show that the nonviolent
and potential partner for negotiations – the Palestinian Authority in the
West Bank–could become a thriving entity under the stewardship of Prime
Minister Salam Fayyad with his institution building, while violent Gaza
under Hamas, openly calling for the destruction of Israel, was isolated and
declining. The regional transformation, however, has produced almost a
reverse picture. While the entity in Gaza is still far from economic
prosperity, it now enjoys Sunni investments and has emerged from isolation,
whereas the West Bank entity is on the verge of economic collapse. It is as
yet unclear whether these two entities can reconcile with each other.

Iron Dome and Imminent Threats

From a military standpoint, Operation Pillar of Defense was different from
Operation Cast Lead in several significant ways. Since 2008, Hamas and other
Gaza factions have expanded their rocket arsenals to include longer-range
rockets. In 2008, Israeli intelligence estimated that all factions in Gaza
possessed around five thousand rockets; by the outbreak of Pillar of Defense
they were estimated to have ten to twelve thousand, including, for the first
time, rockets that could reach Tel Aviv. Indeed, those rockets were used
during the recent conflict, albeit in a symbolic fashion.

Israel, however, did not sit idly by between these two operations, and the
cardinal development of this conflict was the amazingly successful
performance of the Israeli-manufactured Iron Dome rocket-defense system. The
deterrence achieved by Operation Cast Lead afforded Israel some time, and
Israel used this time to develop Iron Dome with its remarkable 85-percent
success rate achieved during Operation Pillar of Defense, providing both
security and a sense of security to the Israeli population. That, moreover,
was one of the major reasons Israel did not ultimately feel it had to launch
a ground operation into Gaza. In the absence of Iron Dome, the pressure in
Israel – in response to casualties and damage – may well have pushed the
government into such an operation, as occurred during Cast Lead.

Israel also applied lessons about conducting an asymmetric war against a
terror organization and a paramilitary force firing at civilians from
civilian areas. Israel selected its targets very carefully, using
precision-guided munitions. The amount of civilian casualties and collateral
damage on the Palestinian side was notably lower than in previous rounds.
Israel also invested a good deal in preparing the nonmilitary elements of
such asymmetric warfare, including legal, humanitarian, and media aspects.
Such wars involve perceptions, not only military hostilities. In this latest
round, Israel did better in that regard as well; for example, during the
fighting itself, Israel allowed eighty truckloads of humanitarian assistance
into Gaza.

The Challenge from Iran’s Proxy: Hizbullah

What are the implications of this latest round of hostilities on the Iranian
challenge? Assuming there is a strike on Iran, be it Israeli or American,
and the Iranians respond with missiles and rockets, directly and through
proxies such as Hizbullah, have lessons been learned that could be applied
to such a confrontation? If there is a showdown with Iran and it entails
confronting Hizbullah, the situation will be totally different because
Hizbullah now possesses some seventy thousand rockets, including many more
longer-range and heavier rockets than Hamas; as Nasrallah has bragged,
hundreds of them could be launched at Tel Aviv. Iron Dome can only intercept
rockets with a certain range, and Israel still lacks a system that can
intercept longer-range rockets. Such a system, David’s Sling, is under
development, but will only be operational in another two years at the

If, then, Israel comes to face such a challenge along its northern border,
it will have to behave differently. It cannot allow itself to be dragged
into a war of attrition where thousands of rockets target Israeli cities
incessantly without an interception system to stop them. In that case, and
also applying lessons from the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel may well have
to attack the national Lebanese infrastructure that supports Hizbullah, and
may feel compelled to launch a ground operation at an early stage.

Maintaining the Ceasefire: Egypt’s Key Role

There is now a ceasefire in place, and the parties are talking continuously
via Egypt about a supportive envelope of arrangements. This phase is
critical. The most important element is to stop the smuggling of weapons
through Egypt into Gaza. Those longer-range rockets did not fall from
heaven; they came from somewhere and made their way through Egyptian soil.
After Operation Cast Lead, Israel worked out understandings with the United
States and Egypt about stopping the smuggling, but not much was done. The
present government in Cairo must be persuaded that its own interest entails
preventing this smuggling; the alternative is ongoing, intermittent warfare
along its border. Such clashes also energize jihadi and other groups that
Egypt does not want to be empowered. Thus, a key challenge is to get Egypt
to do a better job in stopping the arms smuggling.

For example, the Fajr-5 rockets, some of which were launched at Tel Aviv,
are each 6.5 meters long. Although these rockets are disassembled on their
way to Gaza, then reassembled there, they are heavy rockets with heavy
launchers; why, then, did no one observe them on their way to the border?
The routes used for such smuggling (mostly coming from Libya and Sudan) are
not that many and there must be a way to stop it.

Although Hamas, for its part, would like to see the lifting of what it calls
the siege, it is not to be expected that the crossings between Israel and
Gaza will turn from normally closed to normally open. After all, Gaza is a
hostile entity. Even before Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was allowing
an average of over two hundred truckloads of goods and medical supplies to
enter Gaza daily.

Moreover, the Rafah crossing is open to people, and goods can pass through
the Israeli crossing at Kerem Shalom. Indeed, both parties have agreed to
allow the entry of construction materials to Gaza through the Rafah crossing
on an ad hoc basis. At the same time, huge quantities of merchandise
regularly pass through the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, providing
Hamas with a massive source of income. Tunnel owners have to register with
Hamas authorities and pay taxes on anything that goes through. The issue,
then, is not really one of lifting a siege. It is about being able to claim
that Hamas has been victorious in resisting Israel and has gained something
from the conflict. What should concern Israel first and foremost, however,
is the arms smuggling, and that entails getting Egypt to do more.

In sum, Operation Pillar of Defense exemplifies how Israel has to cope with
old, new, and emerging challenges to its national security in a much more
complex environment than in the past, one characterized by dramatic changes
and rising new negative forces.

* * *

This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for
Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on December
6, 2012.


About Michael Herzog

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog served as chief of staff and military
secretary to four Israeli defense ministers over the last decade, before
which he served as head of the IDF Strategic Planning Division. He is
currently an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy and senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.

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