Israel vs. Gaza: The Grim Bottom Line

If current diplomacy fails, pent up rage on both sides, a cycle of tit-for tat-retaliation, Hamas’ hopes for greater Arab assistance, and a yearning to emerge from this latest round of heavy fighting on better footing than either side did from the last face-off in 2008-2009 could sustain Israeli-Hamas violence for quite a while. Without a change for the better very soon, Israel almost certainly will initiate a ground assault into portions of Gaza in order to inflict damage severe enough to compel Hamas to accept a ceasefire.

Israel’s Operation Cast Lead during Dec. 2008 – Jan. 2009 forced Hamas to stand down, greatly reducing Hamas’ rocket launches against Israel for the better part of 3 years after large portions of Gaza were severely damaged and 1,400 Palestinian were killed in the course of an extremely lopsided battering (13 Israelis were killed). Even in street fighting that so often favors the weaker side, many Hamas fighters seemed less than thoroughly braced for that sort of bruising conflict. This time, however, in addition to the use of longer range rockets, Hamas fighters reportedly have undergone better training for a face-off with Israeli ground forces in Gaza on their own turf. They also apparently have secured supplies of improved surface-to-air missiles for use against low-flying helicopters and aircraft as well as better anti-tank missiles. Also, Hamas’ hopes for more meaningful regional support have risen considerably, particularly with a new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt right next door.

As for the Israelis, the jarring arrival of Hamas rockets in the Tel Aviv area and just south of Jerusalem warn of burgeoning Hamas capabilities that make securing little more than another prolonged lull less appealing than it was back in 2009. The Israeli leadership hopes to force a more enduring ceasefire upon Hamas. This ambitious agenda might lead the Israelis to take an even harsher action than in the last round of fighting. In fact, Sunday’s wave of Hamas rocket attacks against Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Beersheba, and Ashkelon is just the sort of development that could drive the Netanyahu government to set in motion Israeli ground attacks.

Although Hamas believes its chances of receiving more robust outside Arab support have improved, the tactical balance of raw military power between Israel and Hamas once again most likely will dominate the bulk of this confrontation, as has been the case in the past. Despite its longer-range rockets and some improvements in the likely performance of its armed militants against Israeli ground forces, Israel’s military superiority across the board remains staggering.

Overhead Israeli drones pass real time intelligence to the Israeli military on Hamas activity and movements, and Israeli combat aircraft swoop down to pounce quickly using various types of bombs on most all launching areas of Hamas rockets. Meanwhile, Israeli heavy artillery and armored units have been massing to add far more firepower if needed against desired targets or to facilitate Israeli ground incursions. Moreover, the vast majority of Hamas’ crudely guided rockets do relatively little damage, while practically every Israeli bomb, artillery shell, or tank round inflicts heavy structural — and typically also human — losses on the densely populated Gaza Strip. Finally, Israel is completely free to resupply its forces in the south with more munitions, weaponry of all types, and fresh reinforcements of trained combat personnel. By contrast, Hamas can receive — at most — only relatively small dribs and drabs of military resupply since Gaza is surrounded on three sides by heavily reinforced Israel army and naval forces, and Hamas-controlled border crossings and tunnels along Gaza’s smaller Egyptian frontier will remain under intensified Israeli observation and aerial interdiction.

The Israeli leadership may delay ground incursions to allow last-minute diplomacy to play out before engaging in more costly military operations. This way, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would be better prepared once ground action is ordered. And although the IDF would take heavier losses than it is experiencing now by pushing into Gaza, the plight of Hamas fighters and civilians in the path of Israeli forces would be far worse. Fighting on one’s own ground provides some limited tactical advantage, but against such a skilled, far more heavily armed opponent with complete air supremacy, it also means the resultant property destruction and collateral casualties occur within your own community. During Operation Cast Lead almost four years ago, approximately 100 Palestinians died in Gaza for every Israeli struck down by Hamas. A similarly lopsided balance of casualties could occur once again.

All talk of “proportional response” regarding Israeli intentions aside, with the huge arsenal at Israel’s disposal and Gaza’s congestion, a vastly disproportionate casualty count favoring Israel is inevitable. And it remains very much in Israel’s unspoken interest to inflict disproportionate casualties for punitive purposes. In all past Israeli military endeavors meant to suppress rocket fire into Israel (whether from Gaza or Lebanon) severe casualties were inflicted on the perpetrators as well as nearby infrastructure and populations viewed as supporting those Israel sought to silence. And should an Israeli ground incursion commence, such casualties among Gazans would spike precipitously as intense firepower would be directed onto areas just ahead of advancing Israeli forces to suppress the ability of Hamas to do the same to advancing Israeli infantry and armored vehicles.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. Dear Wayne White:
    You have written at length in regard to Israel’s overwhelming firepower advantage and there is little to argue about save the question of tactics. You seem assured that a ground invasion is inevitable. I do not think so for one basic reason: the Israelis are just unwilling to take the casualties that infantry will suffer. They proved this in the 2009 Gaza invasion when they avoided virtually all street fighting in favor of a massive air attack. Israeli troops on the ground in the populated areas also dilutes the air advantage as it endangers Israeli troops. Israel firepower will win another battle and bloody Hamas but cannot win the war.

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