Israel's war leaders are fond of declaring that the Israeli Defense Forces' superb performance in its three-week operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has restored the deterrent strength downgraded by the 2006 Lebanon War. This is their first public – albeit backhanded – admission that then, Israel did indeed suffer a loss of deterrent credibility against Arab armies and Iran – and not just Hizballah.
This admission has most meaning for Ehud Olmert, who served as prime minister in both wars, while Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazy came in later as defense minister and chief of staff.
If what they mean by this boast is that the IDF is a different army in 2009 compared with 2006 – they are right. The forces fighting in Lebanon were confused and commanded by officers at sea on the war's objectives.
In three years, Gaby Ashkenazi and his high command succeeded in whipping up a well-organized, highly-professional, well-equipped military force, whose chain of command works with clockwork efficiency in pursuit of clearly-defined goals.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts point out that none of these achievements proves that the Israeli military has recovered its deterrent strength. The Gaza War does not pit conventional armies against each other; it is not a real war in the traditional sense – more like a large though not full-scale military operation.
Only a fraction of Israel's army is fighting in Gaza
Israel is fielding 5 out of 16 brigades of young conscripts and 3 out of its 40 brigades of reservists.
The IDF is organized into 4 armored divisions, each composed of 2 armored and one artillery brigade plus one armored and one mechanized infantry brigade, and another 6 independent mechanized infantry brigades.
The IDF's Infantry Corps is made up of 5 brigades – Givaty, Golani, NAHAL, Kfir and Paratroops.
Israel's reserve force consists of 11 armored divisions, one airmobile mechanized division and 10 regional infantry brigades for border defense.
The Israeli military force in Gaza is confronted on paper by 30,000 Hamas operatives under arms. Israel's heavy air bombardment in the first week of its offensive and the prodigious fire power brought in by its ground forces on Jan. 3 put the bulk of the Hamas force to flight. Many shed their black uniforms and went home to their families or into underground hideouts.
Less that 5,000 men remained in the battlefield, the hard core fighting brigade of Hamas' military wing, the Ezz e-Din al-Qassam. They too have mostly kept their heads down, launching only one counter-attack in three weeks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts stress that even this unit hardly falls into the category of an organized military brigade, made up as it is of groups of gunmen, several hundred each, which are scattered across Gaza City and the enclave and trained to make it on their own.
Israel's aerial assaults have tapered off from 200-300 a night in the early days of the operation down to 60-80 sorties this week.
The only significant military action undertaken by the Israeli forces in Gaza took place in the first three days of the tank and armored infantry columns push in the Palestinian territory, the siege they laid on Gaza City to the north and east, and the bisection of the enclave by a fortified line drawn the south of the capital to block Hamas' access to weapons supplies and reinforcements from the South.
Since then, Israeli troops with air cover are purging the Gaza City suburbs occupied in those three days and tightening their siege, while refraining from capturing more terrain.
Israeli forces stand still, Hamas fighters are hunkered down
Essentially, the Israel force is holding to the lines seized at the outset of the ground incursion and the bulk of Hamas' armed men are hunkered down in bunkers, basements and tunnels.
Although the two sides engage intermittently, the Gaza conflict has essentially wound down to a standstill. The main exceptions are the targets pinpointed by Shin Bet's intelligence network, such as a truck carrying heavy rockets or the top Hamas official, interior minister Said Sayam, who died in an Israeli air strike Thursday night in Gaza City.
Before they were stalled, the Israeli forces' gains were impressive.
The vast network of exploding tunnels and booby-tracked buildings backed by suicide squads prepared by Hamas for decimating an Israeli incursion was mown down in its initial push into Gaza. Nothing stood in the invading forces' way for capturing Gaza City and breaking down the feeble Hamas resistance within hours – but for the silence of the politicians.
Those orders have been delayed to date (by reason of a controversy at the top of the Israeli government described in a separate article in this issue). And so the conflict is stuck in static state.
As for the larger picture, it must be said that Israeli strategists never envisioned Gaza as a primary war front demanding the greater part of its armed forces. Therefore, its outcome cannot be held up as proof of the IDF's ability to stand up to regular armies fighting with armored divisions, an air force, navy and ballistic missiles. Even less can it be presumed capable of taking on the three armies of which the anti-radical front is composed – Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah.
In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts, the IDF was prevented from breaking Hizballah's back in 33 days of combat by a plethora of shortcomings which preceded the 2006 conflict.
Its general staff had become dysfunctional, out of contact with the field units.
Hamas rocket fire reduced by four-fifths, but not eliminated
From 2000 to mid-2007, Israel's elite units were fully immersed in breaking up Palestinian West Bank strongholds and their legions of suicide bombers. During those years, they neglected to hone their combat skills against proper armies armed with sophisticated anti-tank weapons.
As a military entity, the Hamas force in Gaza is inferior to the Palestinian gangs Israel wiped out on the West Bank. Its defeat therefore cannot be counted as a true test of the Israel's armed forces' deterrent strength. That determination would require a more taxing challenge of a different quality and magnitude.
At the same time, Israel most definitely fought a much better war in 2009 than in 2006.
Not only have its military capabilities been vastly burnished and enhanced, but the motivation and self-confidence of its fighting brigades are high, backed solidly by a home front ready to pay whatever it takes to end their long missile torment.
In 2006, the 750,000 people of the region north of Tel Aviv were abandoned to the massive onslaught of Hizballah rockets night and day, climaxing to 220 in 24 hours, without shelters or supplies and an army seemingly incapable of giving them respite.
In the Gaza conflict, the IDF operation has reduced Hamas missile fire from 100 launchings a day to around 20 compared with the 200-300 threatened by Hamas. The million Israeli civilians in Hamas' sights are better shielded by shelters and a ubiquitous home command, whose efficient direction of emergency services saves numerous lives and damage to property, compared with the horrors of the unprotected Gaza population living under Hamas. Out of the 750 missiles and rockets Hamas fired in three weeks, 30 were direct hits to residential or school buildings.
The mobilization of 30,000 reservists for the operation also went smoothly; they had been trained and armed for their mission, unlike their under-supplied comrades in 2006.