By Aaron Klein
JERUSALEM – Wars are won or lost based on which side achieves its goals. In the case of Israel’s three-week offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state made many impressive gains but largely failed to achieve its major objectives.
At the beginning of the conflict, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced two main goals for waging war on Hamas – to decisively smash the terrorist group’s ability to attack Israel; and to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks from Gaza aimed at nearby Jewish communities. Neither goal was met.
Olmert later announced a third goal – to change the situation on the ground so that Hamas will not be able to continue smuggling weapons into Gaza from neighboring Egypt. This goal is on the road to failure.
With regard to denting Hamas’s capabilities, during the past 23 days, Israeli air strikes targeted both symbolic Hamas institutions, such as government buildings, and the group’s military infrastructure, including rocket caches, police stations, explosives factories, and about 200 of an estimated 600 smuggling tunnels between Gaza and neighboring Egypt. Although the IDF will not confirm the percentage of Hamas’s military infrastructure wiped out, defense sources said Hamas lost about 30 percent of its rockets and a sizable portion of its explosives development program.
But the sources said Hamas’ estimated 6,000-man force trained in Hezbollah-like guerrilla tactics is still largely in place along with the majority of the group’s underground bunkers. In addition, 60 percent of its rocket arsenal and most of its weapons caches are well-stored. Crucially, many components of Hamas’s military wing are stored underground and remain safely tucked away.
The IDF only launched two portions of a planned, three-stage assault on Gaza. The first stage was Israel’s continuing aerial bombardment of Hamas targets, which the terror group admits dented its government infrastructure and which Israeli sources said resulted in some damage to the group’s military capabilities. The second stage began about two weeks ago, with some ground troops entering Gaza, taking up peripheral positions in central and northern Gaza and mounting some small offensives and special operations within Gaza City and select northern Gaza camps.
But defense sources say to deal a decisive blow to Hamas’s ability to attack Israel, the IDF must embark on an extensive, large-scale ground operation that would clean out central and northern Gaza of Hamas’s intact military wing. Now that a ceasefire has been announced, it seems Israel will not continue its offensive – meaning Hamas’s military infrastructure is largely still intact.
Still, Israel destroyed so many Hamas buildings (the Israel Air Force almost ran out of targets), the group’s ability to govern on the ground has been badly damaged, since it doesn’t have many government compounds from which to rule. Hamas’s government infrastructure, including office buildings, police headquarters, even financial institutions, was badly damaged. Hamas will find it difficult to immediately assume the kind of authority it boasted in Gaza starting in 2007, when Hamas seized control of the territory from the U.S.-backed Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel also scared into hiding some Hamas leaders with its eliminations of top Hamas members, including Siad Siam, the chief of Hamas’s executive force, a Hezbollah-like guerrilla militia heavily involved in terrorism. But Hamas leaders are quite used to living under assassination threat. When the IDF fully withdraws, Hamas’s military wing chiefs will come out from their shells. Some already have.
Olmert’s stated goal of destroying Hamas’s ability to rocket Israel fell short. This is obvious since Hamas fired an average of 33 rockets per day every day during the entire conflict, and reportedly shot at least 20 rockets and eight mortars since making its cease-fire declaration yesterday.
Hamas’s rocket arsenal is depleted by about half, and many of its rocket factories were taken out by the IDF. Crucial to bleeding Hamas dry is for Israel to find a way to halt the rampant weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. Indeed, this was one of Olmert’s stated goals. But it will not be achieved.
Israel is negotiating an international monitoring mechanism it hopes will stop Hamas from smuggling weapons from neighboring Egypt into Gaza. But previous international monitors stationed along the Egypt-Gaza border fled their duty and repeatedly failed to stem Hamas’ weapons smuggling. The monitors were stationed at the border following Israel’s 2005 evacuation of the Gaza Strip.
Even if a beefed-up international force is established inside Gaza – and this is not the plan – it is not clear whether such a force would do its job. Currently, a 13,000-strong UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon has done little as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has rearmed in the area, many times in full view of the international troops, according to Israeli defense officials.
Meanwhile, Olmert today made some farcical claims, telling the Israeli media Hamas would find it difficult to continue smuggling weapons into Gaza and that the IDF controlled the northern Gaza Strip – the area from which most rockets are launched into the Jewish state. On the ground, the IDF does not control the entire northern Gaza, as clearly evidenced by Hamas’s continued ability to fire rockets from that zone.
Hamas of course has declared “victory,” which is overstating things. Hamas’s “victory” was by default since its only goal was to survive the IDF beating. It achieved this not due to its might but because the IDF will not be launching the third stage of its attack, which would have devastated Hamas.
One real Hamas victory, though, is the international legitimacy the group received during the past few weeks. According to WND’s Hamas sources, the group was in direct contact with Italy, France, the EU and U.N. representatives, many of whom, the sources said, expressed willingness to bring Hamas into the fold and out from isolation.
In the outcome of this war, a clear winner or loser cannot be determined. Both sides gained and lost. But if we are to judge based on which side achieved its objectives, Israel clearly did not win.
Hamas for now will probably scale back its rocket attacks against Israel, since it’s in the group’s best interests not to provoke any further IDF operations. But when the time is right and when its arsenal has been replenished, Hamas will resume its war to destroy the Jewish state.