So far, 25 Israeli soldiers have been killed during the first four days of ground operations in Gaza.
This equals over one-fifth as many as the 121 Israeli soldiers killed during the 2006 Lebanon War, widely remembered as one of the worst debacles in the history of the Israeli military. It’s more than the 22 Israeli soldiers killed during the 2002 battle in the Jenin refugee camp.
The Lebanon disaster at least established Israeli deterrence against the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah and resulted in a resilient and still-enduring state of calm in Israel’s north. And the losses in Jenin were part of an inevitably successful campaign to pacify the West Bank during the second Intifada, when Israel faced multiple terrorist attacks a week.
It’s less clear what Israel will get out of a massive and costly ground operation this time around.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in a difficult strategic bind. If the hostilities end with the restoration of the pre-conflict status quo, Netanyahu will have laid down dozens or perhaps scores of soldiers — members of a conscription-based military that the majority of Israelis have served in — just to return to a situation in which Hamas is capable of trafficking in Syrian and Iranian-produced long-range missiles, possesses the ability to routinely hit every major city in Israel with rocket fire, and remains the Gaza Strip’s undisputed authority.
If Netanyahu doesn’t pocket some kind of strategic deliverable, it could cripple or even doom his premiership, just as the Lebanon War greatly diminished Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor. The question is what that deliverable could be.
Right now, Israeli efforts are focusing on tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel, something that’s allowed Hamas to launch repeated incursions into sovereign Israeli territory. By Saturday, the Israelis had destroyed 13 cross-border tunnels with over 30 openings. But on Monday morning, four Israeli soldiers were killed inside Israeli territory during an attempted infiltration.
Another objective — something that could advance Israel’s security situation beyond its pre-escalation conditions — would be the eradication of Hamas’s rocket arsenal. The Israelis were well on their way to substantially reducing Hamas’s rocket capabilities even before the ground assault was ordered. Prior to the Israeli incursion last week, it was reported that 60% of Hamas’s rocket production sites and perhaps as much as 45% of its rocket arsenal had been destroyed. Ground troops could conceivably finish the job, and a possible Israeli attack on a transit point for Hamas weapons in Sudan late last week supports the theory that the major curtailment of Gaza’s rocket arsenal is Netanyahu’s preferred exit strategy here.
Israel could also attempt to destroy Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rocket-launching capability while keeping Hamas in power. The group, which is thought to have closer operational links to Iran than Hamas does, has launched over 1200 attacks on Israel since the conflict began.
But even that might not be enough of a payoff to justify the operation’s expenditure of lives and diplomatic capital. As Brent Sasley argued in an article for The National Interest, “quiet” is not really a strategic objective. “[H]ow do you measure quiet?,” Sasley asked. “Only a couple rockets per month? Rockets fired by breakaway factions? In part, it’s because quiet is not a long-term goal, since Israeli defence officials contend that short of prolonged occupation of Gaza, military force alone cannot defeat Hamas, only contain it.”
The long-term payoff of Netanyahu’s reluctantly waged ground war in Gaza might become more apparent as the conflict’s endgame comes into focus. For now, though, Israeli soldiers are dying by the dozens — without an obvious sense of lasting strategic gain.
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