Assad’s Victory and Hamas’s New Tactics Have Changed Israel’s Strategic Reality

December 26, 2018 | Gershon Hacohen
About the author: Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts. Today he directs many of the IDF’s war-simulation exercises.

Since the 1979 treaty with Egypt ended the threat of a major military invasion from the south, the IDF has seen the northern front as posing the greatest strategic threat to Israel’s security. Yet just as Syria has become more dangerous than ever on that front, the Gaza Strip has itself reemerged as a strategic problem. In considering these developments, Gershon Hacohen warns against exacerbating them by withdrawing from the West Bank:

The recovery of the Assad regime and the reassertion of its control over most of the country brought the Syrian army back to the Golan Heights, where it was joined by Iranian and Hizballah forces as well as by Tehran-backed Shiite militias. The situation was further complicated by the Russian military presence in Syria and the constraints it imposed on Israel’s operational freedom, especially after the September 2018 downing of the Russian plane by Syrian air-defense forces.

[Meanwhile], Hamas initiated a months-long confrontation along the Gaza-Israel border, in which the Islamist terror group reverted to calculated and well-executed brinksmanship tactics (including massive missile attacks on Israel’s population centers) that tested the continued relevance of Israel’s military superiority vis-à-vis the organization. . . . Hamas exploited Israel’s overwhelming preoccupation with the northern front to escalate the situation to the brink of war while keenly recognizing the constraints that would prevent an Israeli decision in favor of a large-scale operation. In doing so, Hamas successfully changed the strategic equation with Israel in its favor.

This (temporary?) strategic shift becomes all the more relevant given the dogged insistence of most former members of Israel’s military and security establishment on the need for complete IDF withdrawal from the West Bank as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. . . . This [position] couldn’t be farther from the truth. Since the onset of the Oslo process in 1993, the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians has substantially changed in the latter’s favor, as starkly demonstrated by Hamas’s above-noted successes.

No less important, the nature of warfare has undergone substantial changes in recent decades, notably through the relocation of fighting to civilian urban areas with the active participation of the local population, which makes conventional military operations far more difficult and complex. . . . If it took the U.S.-led coalition forces nine months of fighting to clear Mosul of Islamic State forces, how realistic is it to expect the IDF to capture a heavily militarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza within days?

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