BICOM Analysis: The purpose of Israel’s Gaza operation

Key Points

  • Israel’s immediate goal in this operation is to contain the threat from Hamas, rather than to destroy the regime.
  • Hamas has forced Israel to act militarily by abandoning the ceasefire weeks before it officially ended, and extending the range of its rockets to threaten 500,000 Israeli civilians. Its overconfidence led it to the misperception that it could use rocket attacks to push Israel to more concessions.
  • As a democracy, accountable to its civilians, the Israeli government cannot ignore the demands of its civilians to protect them from attack.
  • Hamas’s entrenched control of Gaza and its use of the ceasefire to smuggle in longer range rockets, has left Israel with little choice but to push back the Hamas threat as a short term solution. The alternative, a full scale reoccupation of Gaza to topple the Hamas regime, threatens too high a cost in military and civilian losses.


On Saturday 27 December, the IDF launched a major aerial operation against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.  The targets have included military installations and training facilities, cells planning to launch rockets at Israel, weapons stores in the town of Rafah, and the network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.[i]  The great majority of the approximately 300 Palestinian fatalities from the attacks were Hamas militants, with the UN putting the figures of civilian deaths at 51.[ii]  A number of Hamas commanders are reportedly among those killed.[iii]

Israeli leaders have stated repeatedly in recent weeks that they do not wish to launch military operations in Gaza and sought a continuation of the ceasefire arrangement which was brokered by Egypt six months ago.  Even as election campaigning began in Israel several months ago, southern communities were suffering rocket attacks, but the country’s leaders were adamant about their preference to maintain the ceasefire, imperfect as it was, over a military operation. When last week Hamas demonstrated with a new wave of rocket fire that the ceasefire would not be extended, Israel saw no other option than to act militarily to protect its civilians. But why has Israel chosen to act as it has, what is the purpose of the IDF operation, and what is likely to happen next?

Israel‘s objectives

Israel’s foremost aim in its current military operation is to alter the balance of its relationship with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.  A situation developed whereby Hamas felt that they could fire rockets with impunity at Israeli towns, placing civilians in a perpetual state of terror, and that Israel’s fear of Hamas ability to escalate the conflict would keep them from responding.  Israel’s military strikes are intended to restore quiet to its Western Negev and coastal communities by compelling Hamas to recalculate the cost of its terror campaign.

Israel’s decision to act now was made all the more difficult by the fact that Israel is approaching a general election in February 2009.  Hamas appeared to believe that Israel would not be able to make a major strategic choice during an election campaign, a consideration that appears to have emboldened them.  A Hamas leaflet distributed last week, after Hamas’s decision to end the ceasefire, mocked Israel for failing to have a response to its attacks, and suggested that Israel was hamstrung by its domestic politics. It stated:  “The enemy is in a state of confusion and doesn’t know what to do… Their fragile cabinet has met in a desperate attempt to stop the rockets while thousands of settlers have found refuge in shelters which, by God’s will, will become their permanent homes.” [iv]

This has proven a grave misperception on Hamas’s part.  The ceasefire demonstrated Israel’s willingness to tolerate Hamas’s rule in Gaza in the short term, on the proviso that it refrained from carrying out the Qassam rocket attacks that have plagued Israel for seven years.  However, Israel was not willing to permit Hamas to both enhance its military strength in Gaza to match that of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, whilst hitting Israel at will in order to try to create more favourable terms for a ceasefire. It is notable that both Cairo and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have blamed Hamas for the current situation. Abbas referred to the rocket attacks as “acts of foolishness” on Hamas’s part.[v]

Israel’s immediate aim, therefore, is to inflict as heavy damage as possible on Hamas military and security infrastructure in Gaza in order to weaken the organisation, to interrupt its ability to fire at Israel, and to set a new deterrence benchmark in order to put a stop to the rocket fire.

An unenviable dilemma

For its civilians to be under continued attack is untenable in any democratic country where the government is accountable to its civilians. The residents of Israel’s socioeconomically disadvantaged southern towns and cities have demanded that the government act in their defence. They have constantly reminded the authorities that they have the same right to protection as the citizens of Tel Aviv or Haifa.  Whilst the number of fatalities direct from rockets and mortars, nineteen since 2004, is relatively low, it would be difficult to overstate the threat and fear experienced by tens of thousands of people living within the rocket range.  Their lives depend on warning and air-raid siren systems which, to British ears, sound reminiscent of the blitz.  Residents of Sderot, a town of 20,000 people, cannot stray more than 15 seconds from a bomb shelter or secure room.  By using the recent ceasefire to acquire more powerful rockets with a range of up to 40 kilometres, more than 500,000 Israelis have fallen into Hamas’s radius of attack, raising the strategic stakes, and making Israeli military action harder to avoid. The rocket strikes on Ashdod on Sunday, nearly 40km from Gaza, and the two Israeli deaths and numerous injuries in the last three days, underlie the threat to Israeli civilian life.

Israel’s leaders sincerely committed themselves to the June ceasefire, considering it to be the best of a poor set of options vis-à-vis Hamas, and made clear it wanted the period of calm to be extended.  Even when the understanding was breached by Hamas throughout November and December, Israel’s government, in the thick of a highly sensitive election campaign, resisted weeks of domestic pressure and refrained from undertaking a major military response.  Its only non-violent option was to respond by closing border crossings from which goods were transferred via Israel.  But the impact of this on Hamas has been offset by the extensive smuggling under the Egyptian border which according to one estimate has provided for 90% of Gaza’s imports.[vi]

Israel’s decision to launch a targeted operation on the night of November 4 to destroy a tunnel being dug under the Gaza-Israel border for the purposes of kidnapping IDF soldiers was a risk, and served as a pretext for Hamas to abandon the ceasefire.  But Hamas’s real interest in undermining the ceasefire with renewed rocket attacks was to force greater concessions. When Israel agreed to the ceasefire in June, it swallowed several bitter pills, including the continued captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and ignoring the Hamas-controlled tunnels being used to smuggle more advanced weapons (including longer range rockets), money and goods under the Gaza- Egypt border. Had Israel granted further concessions to Hamas at this point in order to restore relative calm, it would have been strategically detrimental to Israel’s desire, shared by the West and many Arab governments, to weaken Palestinian extremists and strengthen moderates in the West Bank Palestinian Authority. 

In a statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged an end to the violence and supported the “clear consensus … that everything should be done to protect the political space for those leaders committed to peaceful negotiations.”[vii]  Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair also echoed these sentiments before Israel’s attacks, reiterating his view that “we need to devise a new strategy for Gaza, which brings that territory back under the legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their [Palestinian] suffering and fully protects the security of Israel.”[viii]

Israel‘s modus operandi

It is difficult to think of comparable situation where a country has faced the problem of sustained, indiscriminate rocket fire on its communities by a sub-state actor operating as a guerrilla force from within a civilian population.  Israel has faced it on two fronts: Hezbollah in South Lebanon and Hamas (along with other militant groups) in Gaza.  The policy options facing Israel’s leaders have been extremely difficult. How are they to balance their first duty, which is providing for their safety of its citizens, whilst limiting the loss of innocent life on the other side facing an enemy who uses its own people as human shields?  

Close range rocket fire is a problem with which militaries all around the world struggle to contend. In Israel’s case, the threat is against their civilian population. Defensive measures, such as weapons which can intercept the rockets in flight, are under development but still years from deployment. Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005 and, as its leaders are keen to stress, it has no desire whatsoever to return. Lacking a satisfactory military solution, Israel has lived with the rocket threat for seven years. When the range of the rockets was 10km, Israel chose limited forms of response, and eventually accepted an uncomfortable ceasefire to bring respite to its civilians. But by hitting Ashdod on Sunday with smuggled military rockets, Hamas proved how it had used the ceasefire to greatly upgrade the extent of its threat, now covering close to 10% of Israel’s entire population. Facing this scale of threat, Israel had to act.

In this operation Israel is attempting to downgrade Hamas’s threat by targeting their command and control infrastructure, military facilities, supply tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and militant activists. For now, Israel has effectively opted to reduce the regime’s capacity to threaten Israel rather than overturn the regime itself. The scale of Israel’s call up of reserves is not believed to be sufficient for a full scale invasion of Gaza, but limited incursions are a real possibility. At the same time, there are already reports that Israel’s foreign ministry is considering a diplomatic exit strategy, but no details have yet emerged.[ix]  The reaction of Hamas may well determine how Israel chooses to proceed.

The conduct of Israel’s current military operation, underpinned by an intense period of intelligence-gathering and supported with parallel diplomatic and media campaigns, indicates that it is a strategic option for which Israel’s political and security establishment have been preparing. Despite the scale of Israel’s attacks, until now, Israel has successfully managed to ensure that the brunt of the assault is borne by Hamas militants.  Israel has been actively trying to avert charges of collective punishment, and to show its target is Hamas, rather than ordinary Gazans, by allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza throughout the period of the campaign.


Hamas’s use of increasingly powerful rockets has borne out Israel’s fears, expressed when the ceasefire was declared in June, that Hamas would use the period to increase its threat, in readiness to escalate the conflict when it chose. As a democracy in which its leaders are accountable to their people, Israel has shown remarkable restraint in the face of Hamas’s growing use of rocket-based terrorism. But conscious that Hamas’s grip on Gaza is set to continue, Israel has ultimately been forced to act on its duty to protect its civilians.  Whilst Israel has the military capacity to depose Hamas, the consequences would be uncertain.  As such, Israel has so far opted for more limited objectives: reducing Hamas’s military capabilities in the short term and reconfiguring the balance of deterrence in order to make Hamas think twice before orchestrating more rocket attacks.

[i] Photographs of specific targets can be viewed on the IDF website; Hanan Greenberg, ‘240 targets attacked in IDF operation’, YNet News, 28 December 2008.

[ii] UN agency estimates Gaza civilian dead at 51; Reuters, 29 December 2008

[iii] The Hamas officers include Tawfik Jabber, commander of Hamas’s police force in Gaza; Ismail al-Ja’abri, commander of the defence and security directorate; and Abu-Ahmad Ashur, Hamas’s Gaza central district governor. Yoav Stern, ‘3 top Hamas officers among 230 killed during IAF strikes on Gaza’, Haaretz, 28 December 2008.

[iv] Khaled Abu Toameh, Hamas mocks Israel’s non response to Kassams, The Jerusalem Post, 25 December 2008; see BICOM Statistics for latest data on rocket and mortar attacks.

[v] ‘Abbas blames Hamas for bringing Israel’s wrath’, Reuters, 28 December 2008.

[vi] Gaza Tunnels to Egypt for Viagra, IPods to Foil Israel Blockade, Jonathan Ferziger, Bloomberg, 24 December 2008

[vii] Statement Issued By Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Gaza Situation, Sunday 28th December 2008.

[viii] Blair calls for end to rocket attacks, Gaza air strikes, Associated Foreign Press, 28 December 2008.

[ix] Barak Ravid, Ha’aretz, Foreign Ministry readies ‘diplomatic exit plan’ from Gaza

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