A Missed Opportunity

The IDF should have been given the task of destroying Hamas’ rocket capability and accomplishing that task within a short time, something that the IDF easily had the ability to do.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 1, 2009.)

As if expressing some extremely wise adage, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni pronounced after the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from the Gaza Strip: “You have to know when to go in, and you have to know when to go out.” As a matter of fact, the IDF was ordered into Gaza far too late, after hundreds of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip had already fallen on Israeli towns and villages in the south. And the IDF was ordered to leave the Gaza Strip before the mission had been completed. It was a missed opportunity. When Livni threatened that the IDF would be ordered back into the Strip if there were renewed rocket fire on the south, she demonstrated her lack of experience in these matters, thinking that an operation like Cast Lead could be launched every other week.

But it was our defense minister, Ehud Barak, who should have known better, who announced before the order to withdraw was given, that the operation had been completed and there was no reason to maintain the IDF’s presence in the Gaza Strip. He and Livni were of one mind – they claimed that Hamas had been taught a lesson. A price tag had been set for their past acts of terror, and that price tag would intimidate them from repeating the rocket attacks against Israel.

As it turned out, the Hamas leaders had learned arithmetic from a different book than Barak and Livni and their acts of terror against Israel were not based on considerations of price tags. It was Barak and Livni who had to learn a lesson. Namely, that whereas you can deter a nation-state from taking hostile action, deterring terrorists is quite another matter.

And another lesson had to be relearned. When dealing with enemies you may be able to assess their capabilities to harm you, but guessing what their intentions are is frequently next to impossible. This is the traditional conundrum of military intelligence. Israel found this out during the Yom Kippur War, when the capabilities of Egypt and Syria were well known but their intentions were completely misread by Israeli intelligence. Such a mistake is all the more serious when the enemy broadcasts its intentions, as the Egyptians did when Sadat repeatedly announced that he was preparing for war against Israel, and yet you decide not to take their threats seriously.

And again with Hamas. They do not hide the fact that their aim is to destroy Israel, and their rocket capabilities are known, but rather than ordering the IDF to destroy that capability, Livni and Barak led themselves to believe that the incomplete IDF operation in Gaza would affect their intentions and lead them to abstain from any future acts of terror against Israel. It looks like rather than Hamas being taught a lesson, it is Israel that is being taught a lesson it should already have learned in the past.

The IDF operation was late to get started, proceeded at a leisurely pace, and then halted before the objective of eliminating the Hamas capability to rocket Israel had been accomplished.

It is obvious that the Olmert government formulated the goal of Operation Cast Lead primarily out of political considerations. Ambiguously phrased as “changing the security situation in the south,” the cabinet ministers thought that they had cleverly hit on a formula that would allow them to assert after completing the operation that the goal had been accomplished. After all, there was bound to be a change in the security situation in the south as a result of the operation. And there was, no doubt, such a change. But not having destroyed the Hamas capability to launch rockets against Israel, the population in the south remains at the mercy of Hamas terrorists even after the IDF’s withdrawal.

The IDF should have been given the task of destroying Hamas’ rocket capability and accomplishing that task within a short time, something that the IDF easily had the ability to do. As things stand, the basic situation in the south has not changed, and will not change as a result of another cease-fire with Hamas. Like the previous cease-fire with Hamas, it will be a period giving Hamas a respite for rearming and preparing for the next round while Israeli citizens in the south will have to keep listening for the sound of rocket alerts.

So here is another lesson for Livni and Barak: No cease-fire with terrorists. Terror has to be wiped out.

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