Why Did Gaza Operation Fail to Achieve Deterrence?

The uninterrupted Hamas missile attacks from Gaza were the purported subject of an Israeli kitchen cabinet meeting this week. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni found they had been forced to address the disgruntlement spreading through the high echelons of the Israeli Defense forces in the aftermath of the three-week Gaza operation which ended Jan. 18.

The government and the high command, including chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, are being held responsible for the military failing to nail the vital goal of “deterrence” – not just against Hamas, but also Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah – even though the fighting men, finally let off the leash to deal with eight years of terror-by-missile, were eager to go through with their mission.

Israel experienced a rare moment of wall-to-wall consensus behind the operation.

But weeks after it was over, a third of a million inhabitants of Sderot, Shear Hanegev, Ashkelon and Yavne found themselves dumped back in the recurring nightmare. They still wake up each morning wired up for the next Red Color alert and the missile aimed at destroying their homes, businesses and schools, although the operation's measure as a future deterrent was to have been its success in snuffing out of Hamas missile and other terrorist activity.

Top IDF officers maintain that they were not allowed to accomplish this mission.

Another yardstick was to have been progress toward securing the release of Gilead Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006.

This too was not achieved.

Indeed, Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit wondered out loud at the Palestinian Donors conference in Sharm e-Sheikh this week how a single Israel soldier's fate had come to be important enough to hold up Gaza's reconstruction and the reopening of its crossings. He spoke after French president Nicolas Sarkozy's commented that the Shalit case was the single most important issue.

Gheit omitted to mention that Cairo had pledged to intercede for his release if Israel interrupted its Gaza campaign with a unilateral ceasefire.

The Gaza operation dubbed Cast Lead started on Dec, 27, 2008 and ran to three stages before ending on Jan. 18, 2009:


Stage One: The Air Campaign


The operation was kicked off with a massive aerial offensive; wave upon wave of F-16 and F-15 bombers and helicopter gunships carried out a mini-shock and awe campaign which peaked on Day Two.

At that point, the operation's planners should have paused to assess its effect and had the next stage scripted and ready. But neither the ministers nor the generals had prepared a proper balance sheet of the political and military pros and cons for continuing the operation or a forecast of the impact on Hamas.

The 48-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” proposed by President Sarkozy would have provided that pause for deliberating whether to stop at this point or, if Hamas kept on shooting missiles, go forward with broad international validation. Instead, the military campaign rushed forward headlong, impelled by operational-tactical considerations instead of serious national security and political interests.

Many officers argue that lack of proper planning held the Air Force back from delivering on its true capabilities and reduced to bombing low-value targets.


Stage Two: The Ground Campaign


Columns of Chariot 3 and Chariot 4 tanks and three armored infantry divisions – Golani, Givati and paratroops – blasted their way past Palestinian resistance up to the outskirts of Gaza city and sliced the Gaza Strip horizontally in two. Several scores of Palestinian fighters were killed in this push and in skirmishes that erupted as Israeli forces seized the high ground.

The ground incursion was carried out rapidly and efficiently. It convinced the public and the army that the IDF had beaten one of the greatest military challenges of our day, tackling terrorists in heavily booby-trapped, densely built-up urban areas.

But instead of following up on its advantage, the army was told to mark time for a couple of days until the politicians and military commanders decided whether to press forward and defeat Hamas decisively or hold their horses.

Among the options they considered was the seizure of the Philadelphi Corridor to stop Hamas' arms smuggling through Sinai; driving into the heart of the Gaza City to capture the Hamas leadership hiding in underground bunkers; or carve the enclave up so as to isolate Hamas leaders from the refugee camps and cities and end their domination of the population.

In the event, none of these alternatives were adopted.

Stage Two became static and faded into the next one.


Stage Three: Foot-dragging


Many Israeli generals place full responsibility – for letting Operation Cast Lead fritter away its early gains and peter out indecisively – at the door of the defense cabinet (Olmert, Barak, Livni and 9 other ministers) at the helm.

They do not absolve the top command, which ought to have brought pressure to bear on the ministers for  a clear choice between going forward and ending it.  By dithering, the war leaders denied the army and the diplomats substantial gains from the operation and gave anti-Israeli opinion time and space to drum up international criticism, worldwide demonstrations, including protests against Arab rulers who had previously supported the campaign, and hard questions at home.

There is no denying that Operation Cast Lead was not allowed to be an undisputed military success or restore Israel's deterrence. The flow of smuggled missiles for Hamas continues under the Philadelphi Corridor, Israel's southern population is again harassed by missile fire and another round of warfare looms.

The IDF, who were more than willing to deliver the goods, came out of Gaza bowed instead of vindicated.

Israel's generals worry that the unfinished operations against the Lebanese Hizballah in 2006 and the Palestinian Hamas in early 2009 have planted an unfortunate misconception in the minds of Israel's leaders. They appear to have decided that, because of the prevailing regional and international environment, Israel's armed forced can never hope for victory in battle in the classical sense, i.e. defeating the enemy and quenching its desire to fight on. The politicians are therefore holding the military down to limited gains, forcing the fighting men to withdraw when the enemy flags temporarily – just enough to earn Israel limited diplomatic benefits.


Hamas wants a truce to “refresh the warriors”


DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military analysts doubt whether even this modest objective was achieved by the Gaza offensive.

In Gaza, as in Lebanon, the IDF advance was halted prematurely. The troops were not given the chance to gain the upper hand, seriously damage two hostile terrorist organizations, break their command control over their forces, or plant a flag on any of their strongholds.

Both organizations, Hizballah and Hamas, have since rearmed and regrouped for another round of warfare. A Hamas leader, Mussa Abu Marzuk said this week that any pause or truce in Gaza hostilities will be used to “refresh the warriors” for the next war.

The military command is also faulted for failing to live up to its own principles for combating terrorists – bold vision, speed, creative tactics, the element of surprise. Instead it fell back on the advantage of massive fire power, a tactic employed by American forces in Iraq until it was realized that little can be accomplished without boots on the ground.

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