Reformatting deterrence: A new day in Gaza and Israel

Israel’s enforcement of Gaza’s occupation “kept them essentially untouchable” – they were “always out of reach”.

In Gaza, warplanes don't amble, they seem to tear a hole in the sky, unleashing fiery-metal horror in an instant [AFP]

Whether or not Wednesday night’s ceasefire holds, one thing is certain: it’s a new day for Gaza and Israel. 

Living in Gaza during the second intifada and the years after, amidst the obvious courage and resilience of Palestinians in the besieged enclave, I always sensed an underlying feeling of despair and frustration. Israel’s enforcement of Gaza’s occupation kept them essentially untouchable – mostly in the air, in fighter jets and drones and attack helicopters. They were always out of reach. 

In the West Bank, Palestinian kids invariably confront Israeli army tanks and troops invading their towns, which happens upwards of a hundred times a week according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). The teenagers throw rocks and bottles filled with fine white dust that leaves a splat on the side of the tanks. To the outsider, this can get described as futile and hopeless at best, and brainwashing at worst. 

For Palestinians, nothing could be further from the truth. The confrontations that the kids grow up watching offered a modest moment of engagement and agency against the Israeli army. It is a small chance to redirect some of the fear of living under a violent occupation. 

Gaza, on the other hand, can feel like a shooting gallery. Penned in by walls and sniper towers, Palestinians are pushed back into the edges of overcrowded cities and refugee camps by a ruthlessly enforced shoot-to-kill buffer zone. 

With Israel’s tank invasions in the West Bank, you can hear the danger approach – “tank, tank” the kids yell, as doors are shuttered, streets emptied. People have time to react. It’s a kind of telephone-game air raid siren. 

In Gaza, the warplanes don’t amble, they seem to tear a hole in the sky, unleashing 500-, 1,000-, 2,000-lbs of fiery-metal horror in an instant. You don’t know when the next one will hit until your windows shatter, your fixtures fall from the ceiling and you pick yourself up from the blast-wave that knocked you down. As quickly as the attacker arrived, he is gone. All you can do is look to the sky and scream. But nobody was listening. 

These past eight days of war, people were forced to listen. The introduction of long- and medium-range rockets in Gaza touched off daily air raid sirens as rockets fell on Tel Aviv for the first time since 1991 – in Jerusalem for the first time in a generation – forcing 3.5 million Israelis into the war. Gaza wasn’t just “down there” anymore, the war had come to Israel, too. 

Gaza’s rockets were no longer a “nuisance”, or “firecrackers”, they now posed a threat that has to be included in the strategic equation of the conflict – and a potentially meaningful deterrence where there wasn’t ever one before. 

The true game-changer 

The true game-changer in the region was Israel’s defeat in south Lebanon in the 2006 July War. For 34 days, a seemingly unending stockpile of rockets drove Israelis into bomb shelters and halted daily life throughout nearly the whole country. When Israel’s brutal air war failed to halt the rockets, a ground war was launched by the Israeli army. 

If every war is to have its signifying battle – the July War was defined in Bint Jbeil. Israel’s conscripted army and its reserves walked right into a prepared enemy that had changed the rules of the game – mixing guerrilla operations with conventional military tactics. In so doing, Hezbollah dealt Israel a psychological blow that carried the “spectacle” of defeat, as Israel’s Haaretz newspaper characterised it. 

According to Israel’s Winograd Commission – tasked by the state with investigating the July War failings – the battle in Bint Jbeil was the turning point of the war, “a symbol of the unsuccessful action of the Israel Defence Forces throughout the fighting”.

A successful model was in place, and Palestinians took note. 

Tunnel trade and the Arab uprisings 

After Cast Lead, there was a switch in resistance approach in Gaza led by the Qassam Brigades. In short, away from the primacy of infiltration-type operations to a more dug-in position inside Gaza itself. And drastic upgrading of the rocketry, weapons and materiel. 

It was Gaza’s smaller-scale answer to Hezbollah, led by Qassam Brigades commander, Ahmed Jabari. Under Jabari, Hamas’ armed wing transformed into a more structured and professionalised force. “This isn’t a terror organisation anymore,” said Minister for Home Front Defence Avi Dichter, two days before Jabari’s assassination, “it’s a bona fide army.” 

In addition to the rockets, Palestinians added anti-tank missiles of the sort that were used to devastating effect by Hezbollah in 2006. Anti-aircraft missiles looted from Gaddafi’s caches during NATO’s war in Libya emerged in Gaza across a well-trodden corridor from post-war Libya, through post-uprising Egypt and into the virtually independent Bedouin republic in the Sinai – where all roads lead to Gaza’s lucrative tunnels network. 

The tunnels were once hand-carved with trowels and only large enough for teenagers to navigate, but in recent years have become an industrial-scale project, large enough for cars and cattle, and various weapons-systems too. 

And while it could be argued that Gaza’s rockets were largely ineffective during the eight days of fighting, it takes some time to learn to use these weapons. Because there are nothing like test-ranges in the tiny enclave of Gaza, the rockets must be tested in battle. Still, as day after day of rocket barrages passed, it seemed inevitable that a deadly landing in a major city was getting closer. 

That could not have been lost on Netanyahu, as the prime minister embarks on an election campaign that will be defined by this latest war in Gaza. A costly strike on Tel Aviv from Gaza would have been a problem for his campaign, and would have likely pressed Israel into a ground war against a transformed force with significantly improved capability. 

Instead, Israel sued for peace with a ceasefire that reads very favourably to Palestinians. While Netanyahu avoided his Bint Jbeil moment, Israelis were forced to recognise a new day in Gaza. 

Jon Elmer is a Canadian journalist based in the Middle East since 2003, primarily in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jonelmer