The Magazine

The Gaza Aftermath

Most Israelis think they won this round.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By MAX BOOT
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Jerusalem

Another war, another debate. When I was last in Israel in August 2006, the war against Hezbollah was just winding down and a great debate was starting. Who won? The results were equivocal enough that both Israel and Hezbollah could claim vindication. Although Hezbollah had lost 600 or so of its fighters, it could take heart from the fact that it managed to hit Israel with hundreds of rockets that killed 43 civilians and had managed to slow down the Israeli military juggernaut and kill 118 soldiers.

The intervening two and a half years in the murky Middle East have provided more evidence for both sides to support claims of victory. For Hezbollah, there is the fact that it has managed to fully rearm itself and is now believed to have more missiles than it did before the war with Israel. It has also managed to extend its sphere of control. After its armed spree in Beirut last year, it won veto power over the Lebanese government.

But there is also evidence that Hezbollah was surprised and caught off guard by the ferocity of Israel's retaliation for the kidnapping of its soldiers; senior Hezbollah leaders said as much. And though the recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas would have been the perfect opportunity for Hezbollah to renew hostilities while Israel was distracted, it declined to do so. When a few rockets were fired recently from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, Hezbollah officials rushed to reassure Israel that they were not responsible. This suggests that Israel had managed to establish some degree of deterrence against this terror organization.

But that is not how most Israelis or most Arabs saw it. What they took away from the 2006 war was the perception that Hezbollah had stood up to Israel better than any previous adversary. Israelis lamented, and Arabs celebrated, that this was the first war Israel had not won, at least not decisively. Israel engaged in a collective soul-searching over what went wrong which led to the firing of the defense minister and the armed forces chief of staff and to the convening of a commission to draw lessons from what was widely seen as a bungled operation.

Since then, Israel has worked slowly and methodically to reestablish its deterrence. Two small steps in this process were the aerial bombing in September 2007 of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor and the car bombing in February 2008 (widely believed to be the work of Mossad) that killed Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah in Damascus. A far bigger step occurred on December 27 when Israel launched what turned out to be a three-week onslaught into the Gaza Strip after Hamas dispensed with a six-month ceasefire and resumed firing rockets into southern Israel.

Hamas, like Hezbollah, survived the war not so much because of its military prowess but because of Israel's self-restraint. Destroying Hamas would mean high casualties among Palestinians (and possibly among Israeli soldiers). Even worse from the Israeli public's perspective, it would force Israel to resume the role of occupier that it gave up in Gaza in 2005, because no conceivable alternative--not the "international community," and not Fatah--could come into Gaza on short notice with any hope of displacing Hamas as the effective administration. Not wanting to run the Gaza Strip again and not wanting to experience the possible alternative of Somalia-style chaos on its southern border, Israel chose to fight a highly limited war against Hamas--more like a punitive expedition really.

The Israeli Air Force kicked off Operation Cast Lead at 11:30 A.M. on December 27 with a devastating series of strikes by 70 F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers armed with satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Flying at 28,000 feet--too high to be seen--they hit over 100 targets including a police graduation ceremony that an oblivious Hamas was holding in the open air. Surprise was complete and the attack was devastating. An estimated 200 Hamas fighters died in the war's opening minutes. Over the next week Israeli aircraft hit hundreds more targets--not only Hamas commanders and fighters but also buildings where they have conducted their operations and launched the missiles that hit Israeli towns.

On January 3, after eight days of bombing, Israeli ground forces entered the fray. The offensive was conducted by one division, or about 10,000 soldiers. They quickly drove through the middle of the Gaza Strip all the way to the Mediterranean, isolating Gaza City to the north from the tunnels in the south that are used to smuggle in supplies from Egypt. Israeli forces then fought a war of attrition in the northern Gaza Strip for the next two weeks until Israel declared a ceasefire in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 18, to be followed 12 hours later by a Hamas ceasefire.