Israel Can’t Afford to Abandon the South

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree in Israel's south (credit: JNF)

Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military campaign against Hamas over the last 50 days, has seemingly come to a close as the two warring parties agreed to a ceasefire on August 26.

I refrained from writing about the operation for a variety of reasons. My family was in the process of moving from Israel to the United States, and between boxing up one life and assembling a new one there was little time for reflection. I can also admit that in the last 50 days my perspective swung – at times wildly – between (faint) hope and dread.

Who won this war (and it was most certainly a war)? Definitely not Hamas, as Avi Issacharoff smartly points out. While it displayed improved firepower, on an operational level the Islamist terror organization failed to score any major victories. No IDF soldiers were captured, and the few infiltrations by Hamas terrorists into Israeli territory were largely unsuccessful.

Most importantly, Hamas has now lost the element of surprise that the tunnels, UAVs and souped up rockets afforded it. That capital now used up, it is difficult to see how this war worked to its benefit.

Israel can’t really be declared a winner either. Its political and military establishment have failed to effectively address the threat posed by Hamas. With so much political support at the outset of the operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a wide range of options at his disposal, but did not stray far from the blueprint employed in 2008 and 2012. There is also a lingering question regarding how much prior knowledge Israel had about Hamas’s tunnels, and why nothing was done to deter these efforts in the past.

And although Israel’s military restraint was noted by many in the international community, the operation did undermine its flawed rapprochement process with Turkey, as well as the (not surprisingly) dysfunctional relationship between the current Israeli government and the Obama administration.

Even Iron Dome, arguably the most important military advancement of the 21st century, wasn’t enough to prevent international airlines from canceling flights to Israel for a brief period. The country’s tourism industry, during peak summer season no less, was similarly grounded, and may take some time to recover.

But the real victim in Operation Protective Edge was Israel’s south. Residents in towns like Sderot and Netiv HaAsara have been living under indiscriminate rocket fire since 2006, and feel the latest operation has done little to alter the cycle of violence. For them, there is no difference between 2014 and the two previous IDF operations. They continue to feel isolated, as their government has yet to compel Hamas to reconsider its ideological or methodological philosophies.

However, the conflict with Gaza could also have long term ramification on southern Israel.

In recent years, billions have been invested in Israel’s desert periphery, which long ago ceased to be the pillar of Zionist success that David Ben Gurion once envisioned. From an ambitious Eilat to Tel Aviv railway, to high tech ATPs and a wholesale relocation of the IDF’s command centers (see here as well), reassuring investors demands that the Israeli government find a long term solution to its southern security issues.

Failure to accomplish this feat may result in the south’s further isolation from mainstream Israel (a process that has been going on for decades), as many families have yet to return to their homes.

In order to construct an effective strategy vis-a-vis Hamas, Netanyahu must take these factors into consideration. Keeping the residents, financiers, and voters of the south happy is crucial – not only to his political fortunes, but to the region’s forecast as a whole.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel