Will third Gaza conflict end any differently?
TEL AVIV — Get used to conflict.
That’s the message Israeli officials and security experts are relaying as the Israel Defense Forces conducts its third operation in six years against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s missile defence capabilities have grown significantly since previous rounds of fighting in Gaza — Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 — while Hamas has expanded its capability to strike deep at population centers in the Israeli heartland.
But experts say the core objectives for each side — a bolstering of credibility among Palestinians for Hamas, a quiet border for Israel — were only temporarily achieved in previous rounds of fighting and are unlikely to be secured for the long term by this one.
“There’s no military solution, so there will be another round,” said Yiftah Shapir, head of the Middle East Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies. “We need to restore Israeli deterrence for a year, two, three. In between the rounds they’ll get new weapons and develop more clever ways to hurt us. They can’t beat us, but they can anger us and hurt us.”
The IDF’s latest operation, Protective Edge, began in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Since then, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired 360 rockets at Israel, according to the Israeli military, and Israel has launched more than 700 airstrikes on Gaza.
“Today we expanded our operations against Hamas and the other terrorist groups in Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to protect our civilians against Hamas attacks on them.
“This could take time,” he added.
Hamas has been shooting rockets into Israel for well over a decade, but its missiles can now strike much farther than border towns in southern Israel, which have previously borne the brunt of the group’s firepower. Long-range rockets have sent residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem running for cover this week, and the majority of Israel’s population centers is under threat.
Israel has avoided casualties thanks to early warning sirens, which signal residents to head for protective shelters, and Iron Dome, a missile defense system that intercepts rockets headed for populated areas. But the Palestinian death toll stands at more than 80, including more than a dozen children, several of whom were killed in the bombing of a house in southern Gaza on Tuesday. A spokesman for the Israeli military told The New York Times that a warning to evacuate had been issued prior to the attack.
Netanyahu ordered the IDF to expand the operation on Wednesday and the army has called up 40,000 reservists. Israeli leaders have discussed the possibility of an imminent ground invasion of Gaza.
If ground troops do invade, Protective Edge would expand beyond the scope of Pillar of Defense, an eight-day campaign fought entirely from the air. The operation would more closely resemble Cast Lead, a three-week war begun in December 2008 that involved an Israeli ground invasion and left 13 Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians dead.
According to experts, even a ground invasion would be unlikely to topple Hamas or end rocket fire for more than a couple of years.
Amir Rapaport, the editor of Israel Defense magazine, said Israel’s best hope for the long term would be an international presence capable of stopping Hamas’ import of weapons, but Rapaport said it was unlikely that Hamas would accept the idea.
“We want to get not just long-term quiet but also a mechanism that will deny Hamas and Islamic Jihad the ability to utilize the quiet to get more missiles,” Rapaport said. “I don’t know if that’s a goal that we’ll achieve.”
In addition to raising its status on the Palestinian street, Hamas hopes the rocket fire will compel Israel to ease economic restrictions on Gaza, said Gershon Baskin, the founder of a joint Israeli-Palestinian policy group and a former liaison in previous indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.
Baskin said Hamas also hopes the rockets will convince Israel to release the hundreds of Hamas operatives it arrested last month in its West Bank operation to rescue three kidnapped Israeli teens.
“The point of this operation was to bolster support for them in Gaza, the West Bank and the Arab world,” Baskin said. “From their perspective it’s too early to stop because they haven’t succeeded in doing any damage yet.”
It’s not only security experts that see Protective Edge as history repeating itself.
Shachar Liran-Hanan, a third-year student at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, lived in the embattled southern city during Pillar of Defense and grew up in a small town in Israel’s North, where she remembers running for cover during Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.
Joking that she always chooses the tensest places to live, Liran-Hanan is using her experience coping with missiles to set up an impromptu center where students can engage in pro-Israel advocacy on social media.
“I feel that I have more experience and I deal with it easier, but new students don’t have that feeling,” she said. “We all want to get to calm, to a situation of peace. But in the meantime, we want to be strong and to help make this situation a little more tolerable.”