Decision on major Gaza incursion already taken; preparations underway
Sderot residents can put away the protest tent in Jerusalem: The political leadership has already decided to embark on a wide-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. However, preparations have not yet been completed, which is why the operation is delayed.
A limited group of ministers who are party to the decision, just like the IDF and Shin Bet, require more time in order to create the conditions that would ensure that the operation's objectives are achieved within a reasonable period of time.
Good preparation, they believe, will minimize casualties among our forces, shorten the duration of the rocket counterattack to be delivered by Hamas at the start of the operation, and prevent undesirable developments on other fronts.
The decision in principle to embark on the operation was taken even before the Winograd report's publication. The secrecy and compartmentalization were meant to maintain the elements of surprise as much as possible. Even though Hamas in Gaza already knows that the operation is approaching and is preparing for it, it can still be surprised in some areas.
If it works, it would be possible to show success and minimize casualties in the first and critical phase. Surprises in terms of methods, means, and operational zones could also shorten the duration of the IDF's stay in the Strip.
What has already been leaked to the media and published is damaging, and enables Hamas to focus its preparations. Therefore, Olmert and Barak are right when they refuse to share with the cabinet the details of the plans and secret military and diplomatic preparations undertaken these days. The IDF too adopted strict compartmentalization, and this is a good thing.
However, the Israeli public, which will have to bear the burden of casualties and the economic price of an ongoing campaign, must know and realize, in general terms, what it faces.
Clear objectives this time around
A clear and accurate definition of campaign targets is of the utmost importance. A significant part of the Second Lebanon War's failures stemmed from a negligent and unrealistic definition of the objectives of the military move, which started as an aerial operation and ended as war.
This time around, the targets have already been defined, and they are clear.
Some of them are tactical:
1. The facilitation of operational and intelligence-gathering freedom of action for the IDF and Shin Bet all across the Strip, as quickly as possible. This is a crucial basic condition for achieving the other objections.
2. A drastic reduction of rocket and mortar fire as quickly as possible.
3. Destruction of most military infrastructure, arms arsenal, and means of production. We are not only talking about Hamas infrastructure, but rather, also that of the other organizations and crime families.
4. Blocking the Philadelphi Route in a manner which would curb, by at least 60%, smuggling into and out of the Strip.
5. Avoiding, as much as is possible, harming Palestinian civilians who are not involved in the fighting, and the prevention of a humanitarian crisis.
The strategic objectives are as follows:
1. Removing Hamas from power and establishing a stable Palestinian regime in the Gaza Strip, with international monitoring and assistance.
2. Demilitarizing the Strip for an extended period of time in terms of rockets and the infrastructure to produce such weapons.
3. Effective Israeli security and monitoring for years to come of crossings into the Strip, including Philadelphi (either independently or through an agreement with the Palestinians, the Egyptians, and international monitoring parties.)
In order to achieve this ambitious list of objectives, or at least most of it, Israel must secure the "operational environment." Simply put, Israel must create, in advance, international understanding and backing for the Gaza campaign and elicit the willingness (of NATO or other international parties) to by party to the agreement to follow in its wake, which would enable the IDF to exit Gaza. This matter is an important component in the preparations ahead of the campaign.
Another important condition for success is to prevent escalation on other fronts during the fighting.
Hizbullah and its patron, Iran, may attempt to open a second front in the north, in order to mitigate the pressure on Hamas. Both of them, as well as Syria, must be made to understand in advance, in an unequivocal manner, that any intervention on their part may cost them dearly. The IDF must also prepare for a terror wave in the West Bank; meanwhile, the police must prepare for possible riots among Israel's Arabs.
In addition, we must prepare for the possibility of Hamas attempting to organize mass marches of civilians towards Israel's borders and within the Strip.
Heavy barrages in first 2 weeks
In order to address all of the above, large forces (including reservists and police) must be prepared in advance, in a manner that would enable them to quickly join the fighting or prevent massive riots. Plenty of diverse equipment should also be prepared in order to handle riots.
Once the military operation starts, this equipment must already be waiting at regional warehouses near possible trouble spots, or even in the possession of the forces. The home front must be prepared as well. Western Negev residents will surely have to sustain heavy Qassam and mortar barrages in the first week or two (in a good case scenario.) But they are not the only ones who must be ready - residents on the Lebanese border and even south of it must be ready for rocket barrages.
The implication of this is that it would be necessary to place a significant part of Israel's security forces on high alert, at least in early stages of the campaign. This is on top of the unusually large scope of forces to take part in the fighting itself. The Israeli and international experience in asymmetrical combat against guerilla and terror forces proves that chances of success grow in direct relation to the size of the force that takes part in the campaign.
The larger the force that takes part in the operation, the greater the shock on the other side and the smaller the number of casualties among our forces - this was proven in the first and second Intifada and also in Iraq. The problem with a large force comes during the static stay in the field. This is where losses start to mount, and therefore this matter should also be considered in advance.
As noted, in order to secure the objectives, the IDF and Shin Bet must quickly reach a situation of freedom of action, similarly to the situation created in the West Bank in the wake of operation Defensive Shield. Indeed, operational and intelligence freedom does not require soldiers to constantly stay across the Strip, yet the troops need time. Months or even a year will pass before it's possible to see genuine results.
Operation Defensive Shield was followed by other operations and two years passed before the number of attacks was drastically reduced. In Gaza, should all go well, it would take much less time. Yet we must not expect instant results. To that end, the Israeli public and politicians must show all the restraint and patience they are able to draw on. The public must also internalize the realization that a Gaza campaign would exact a human toll and an economic price.
We can draw encouragement from the fact that the preparations undertaken these days by the IDF and Shin Bet, and also on the diplomatic front, are being undertaken thoroughly and secretly. Defense Minister Barak, who has been overseeing the preparations, is applying the experience he gained in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, where operations are sometimes prepared for six months and even longer.
It has already been proven that the more thorough the preparation process, the more successful and smooth the operation tends to be. Let's hope that this rule will also apply to the upcoming major Gaza campaign.