As Israeli troops moved deeper into northern Gaza to put a stop to Palestinian rocket fire on the small Negev town of Sderot, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was confident that the huge military operation would radically change the situation on the ground.
However, his critics on the right and on the left, as well as some independent analysts, say it will prove yet another futile exercise. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank was at the center of the argument.
The prime minister hopes the operation, code-named Days of Repentance, will set back Kassam rocket production by the radical Hamas terrorist organization, put Sderot out of range by creating a nearly five-mile-wide rocket-free zone and convince Palestinian society that firing Kassams at Israeli civilians will cost it dearly and is not in its interest.
His opponents on the left, though, maintain that the large-scale operation will only exacerbate feelings of vengeance on the Palestinian side and, ultimately, lead to more violence.
The answer to the Kassams, said legislator Zehava Galon of Yahad-Meretz, should be to advance the timetable for withdrawal and, by leaving Gaza, reduce Palestinian motivation to carry out terror.
The prime minister’s right-wing critics, however, argue that the operation will have only a fleeting impact precisely because of Israel’s planned pullback.
National Religious Party leader Effie Eitam said, “The prime minister has already told the Palestinians they have won. You can’t fight a war when you say in advance that next year you intend to flee.”
Once the Israel Defense Forces units withdraw, he asserted, there will be nothing to stop the Palestinians from producing bigger and better rockets and firing them at Israeli civilians even further afield.
Operation Days of Repentance was launched Sept. 30, after months of almost daily rocket attacks on Sderot. For Sharon, the killing of two young Ethiopian children by rocket fire the day before was the final straw.
He convened the military and told it to do whatever was necessary to stop the shelling. The result was a large, coordinated land and air operation inside northern Gaza, with the IDF overrunning the Beit Hanun area, from which most of the Kassams had been launched, and entering the northern outskirts of the sprawling Jabalya refugee camp.
Sharon insisted that by launching a huge military operation, he is not being sucked into Gaza by the terrorists in a way that might subvert his withdrawal plan. On the contrary, he said the IDF has gone in to create conditions for an orderly withdrawal of settlers and soldiers, when the time comes.
According to military intelligence, the aim of Hamas rocket fire is to create the impression that the militants forced Israel to withdraw, and that when the withdrawal takes place, it will be seen to be occurring under fire. Sharon is determined to prevent them from plausibly making any such claim.
A week after launching the offensive, Sharon spoke of “important achievements.” And, to some extent, the results on the battlefield seemed to bear him out. The IDF plan was to locate and destroy Kassam launching teams, engage other Hamas militants and drive home to Hamas and the civilian population that there was a price to be paid for targeting Israeli civilians.
Sharon also wanted to send another message: Something on the scale of this operation would be the minimal Israeli response the Palestinians should expect if they continue firing Kassams after the withdrawal.
Within the first week of the operation, some of those goals had been achieved. At least seven Kassam launching teams had been spotted by Israeli helicopters or unmanned drones and destroyed. Over 75 Palestinians, most of them militants, had been killed. It was clear, too, that the civilian population was suffering.
However, the plan was not a total success. It did not lead to any significant Palestinian civilian pressure on Hamas to stop firing Kassams, as the IDF had hoped. On the contrary, as the operation wore on, support for Hamas on the Palestinian street seemed to grow.
The more Israel weakened Hamas’ military capabilities, Israeli analysts argue, the stronger it seemed to grow as a political organization. That was one of two major dilemmas Israel faced. The other was how to maintain a rocket-free security zone, while supposedly limiting its military presence in Gaza, not increasing it.
On this issue, Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim explained that the idea was to keep the Kassam launchers out of range, but that did not necessarily require a permanent Israeli presence in a security zone. The concept was more dynamic, with troops moving in and out of the five-mile swath as needed.
Some analysts argue, though, that the growing political strength of Hamas, precisely because of the blows it is taking, shows just how counterproductive the Israeli operation is. They say Hamas will do all it can to continue to fire Kassams, even as Operation Days of Repentance continues, in the hope that Israel will eventually be forced to withdraw by international or domestic pressure. Then Hamas will claim victory, as a forerunner to the claims it will make when Israel withdraws from all of Gaza next year.
Military analysts like Ze’ev Schiff of the newspaper, Ha’aretz, are not convinced that the military operation is reducing Hamas’ military capacity in any significant way. Schiff maintains that Hamas has many rocket-producing workshops in other parts of Gaza, well outside the limits of the present operation.
“If the entire infrastructure isn’t destroyed,” he writes, “it’s only a matter of time before Hamas increases the range of the Kassam rockets and is able to fire them from deeper inside the Gaza Strip.”
Sharon’s deeper strategic response is that once Israel withdraws from Gaza altogether, it will be able to create a deterrent balance, similar to the one that exists today between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
By withdrawing from Gaza and ending the occupation there, Israel will regain the moral high ground. If Hamas still continues to fire rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel will be able to respond even more powerfully than it has, with the support of most of the international community.
In Sharon’s view, Israel’s withdrawing might enable Hamas to increase its military capabilities, but it should reduce its motivation to attack. And if it doesn’t, Israel’s hands won’t be tied.