Why Israel’s Gaza Campaign Is Doomed

Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bomb Hamas militants will leave Israel more isolated, insecure, and alone.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and damage in Gaza city following an Israeli air raid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and damage in Gaza city following an Israeli air raid

Photos by Jack Guez and Marco Longari, AFP/Getty Images.

Palestinian rockets are terrorizing Israeli towns. Israeli jets are pummeling the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Israeli reservists have been called up for a possible ground invasion. Twenty-one Palestinians, among them small children, and three Israelis are dead, and the toll is sure to rise. Four years after the Israeli military unleashed a punishing attack on Gaza, Israel and Hamas are once again on the brink of war.

The fresh round of Israeli reprisals follows an uptick in attacks from militant groups in Gaza. It began last Saturday with the firing of an anti-tank missile at an Israeli army jeep that wounded four soldiers. Several days of intensive rocket fire from Gaza followed. Israel responded by assassinating Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, and launched an air campaign to try to destroy as many weapons depots as possible.

In 2012, there’s barely been a week when at least a handful of rockets haven’t been fired from Gaza into Israel. Every month or so there is an escalation, like during one six-day period in June when 162 rockets landed in Israel. “No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the foreign media on Thursday as he authorized more intensive strikes in Gaza.

Netanyahu is surely right. Israel’s response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn’t the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it.

To try to contain the threat, Israel has relied largely on periodic air strikes on weapons storage facilities and targeted assassinations of militants, which sometimes result in civilian casualties that radicalize the Palestinian population. It bombs the smuggling tunnels that run underground between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and are used to smuggle in civilian goods and weapons. The tunnels exist because of the strict blockade Israel enforces around the territory, choking off anything like normal commerce.

In four years, Israel’s playbook hasn’t changed. Nor did the Palestinian rockets ever truly end. But in the intervening years the world has changed. Most significantly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who could ignore anti-Israel sentiment in his country, is gone. His successor, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, may have more sway with Hamas, but he also has less power to resist Egyptian calls to sever ties with Israel.

Israel’s problems aren’t limited to its southern flank. The civil war in Syria is threatening to engulf Israel. Thousands of Jordanians are in the streets demanding King Abdullah’s ouster. Relations with Turkey remain frayed.

Israel is growing ever more isolated just as its regional position becomes more insecure.

About 1,400 rockets have been fired at Israeli towns since the end of its last full-scale military action in Gaza in January 2009.* The Israeli blockade of Gaza failed to prevent the smuggling of longer-range rockets that can now reach Tel Aviv. Hamas is still in power and has more international legitimacy than ever. The emir of Qatar became the first head of state to visit Gaza last month since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, still furious over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turks on a flotilla filled with pro-Palestinian activists in 2010, is making plans to travel there. A senior Egyptian delegation visited Friday in a show of support.

Palestinian militant groups are clearly trying to drag Israel into an all-out war. An Israeli ground response “would be the best thing that could happen to Hamas,” the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Ami Ayalon, told Israel’s Channel 10 news Thursday night. “Hamas’s strategy is to draw the Israeli army into civilian areas, kill lots of Israeli soldiers, and declare victory.”

So that’s Hamas’s strategy. But what is Israel’s?

“We will put an end to this,” Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, declared Thursday. “We will not maintain restraint. If the terror organizations do not cease their fire, we will be prepared to toughen our response as much as necessary, until they say, ‘Enough!’ ”

If that is indeed what Netanyahu and his government have planned—and all indications suggest mounting military strikes on Gaza are imminent—then Israel’s response couldn’t be any less strategic. To be sure, Israel will once again achieve many of its short-term tactical goals, assassinating a handful of Hamas leaders, leveling militant safe houses, and eliminating scores of Hamas military installations or weapon depots. And, in the end, Israel will be no safer, although it will surely be more alone in the world and living in a neighborhood that is less tolerant of its aggressive countermeasures.   

It’s time to declare Israel’s policy toward Gaza and Hamas a failure. This is not an anti-Israel statement. Rather, it is an honest acknowledgment of the facts, which are simply too numerous to avoid.

It may please some Israelis to hear tough talk from Yaalon and other senior officials, but there is no disputing that Israel’s military approach has failed to bring better results. It will not—as history has demonstrated—bring the security that Israelis crave.

Israel needs a far more sophisticated, diplomatic, long-term strategic policy for dealing with Gaza and all the threats around it—from Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps Egypt. A new Israeli approach may have to include a willingness to at least try talking to Hamas, which is fighting its own internal battle against even more radical, anti-Israel groups in the Gaza Strip. It may mean putting more pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, languishing in irrelevance in Ramallah, to make peace with Hamas so there can be negotiations with Israel and a permanent end to this rocket-war madness.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it plainly during a visit to the region last year.   “The question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength.’’

In the spring of 2010, I asked one of Netanyahu’s top security advisers what Israel’s policy was toward Gaza. “What is it you don’t understand?” he replied, irritated. He didn’t care for my question because the answer seems self-evident to top Israeli officials: more of the same. If that remains the case, Israel’s newest military gambit was doomed before it even began.

Correction, Nov. 16, 2012: Due to a copy-editing error, this article originally stated that 14,000 rockets have been fired at Israeli towns since January 2009. About 1,400 rockets have been fired at Israeli towns.