What is Israel’s objective, and where do the current actions fit in the broader, grand strategy for its security? It may be an odd way to frame the question, but what makes me nervous about situations such as we are currently witnessing in Gaza is the lack of a clear objective in sight. Put it another way: what are the conditions of victory, as far as Israel (or Hamas) is concerned? Given the power imbalance, not least in terms of conventional forces, Israel is in a stronger position to shape the course of events, and it should be in a position to formulate objectives. If taking out the Hamas military leader was a part of what may be termed as a decapitation tactic, then it has already achieved that limited objective, yet that action continued the chain reaction, resulting in more rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza. That kind of reaction by Hamas would have been predictable. Beyond a certain point, conflicts tend to gain their own momentum, and it becomes extremely difficult to control or to stop. It does feel like that the current situation is reaching that point: it is looking very grim, and the tension is escalating, with both sides pushing themselves into a position, from which they cannot back down easily without being seen as defeated.
If Israel were to conduct a ground offensive, it faces the same kind of problems it encountered in the winter of 2008~2009. What will it achieve? An occupation of Gaza looks way too difficult, both in terms of practicality and international opinion. Also, would Israeli public opinion stomach a prolonged, and probably pretty bloody, occupation of Gaza? Even hammering Hamas very hard, very quickly, and then withdrawing, will be difficult, given the terrain, and the civilian casualties that would inevitably result from such a tactic. That seemed to be the tactic last time, but Hamas lived to fight another day, and today their rockets have Tel Aviv in range, beyond Ashkelon and Ashdod. The military and operational conditions regarding an offensive in Gaza do not seem to have changed much from almost four years ago, but Israel finds itself in a far more uncertain, and probably more hostile, Middle East, as well as a threat from longer-range missiles, and a shorter period of time before regional and international pressure forces the Israeli hand. The Egyptian government, for example, may become very vocal, and perhaps even active materially, in supporting the people of Gaza, and that could hinder Israel’s operations.
This conflict comes at a point when there are many elements of uncertainties and trouble in the region, as demonstrated by the continuing civil war in Syria, and it is going to make the regional situation more volatile. There are also more imminent and immediate issues that could dictate or at least influence the framework of the conflict: the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to seek admission as a non-member observer state at a UN general assembly on 29 November, and the Israeli election on 22 January 2013. How the broad structures of the region, and events, as well as the decisions made by the main protagonists, interweave in the next few days and weeks will affect a large number of people, and I do fear for them.