Map showing the Philadelphi Corridor
Although the IDF build-up on the border to Gaza is continuing, there are signs that Israel is hesitant about entering the "third stage" of Operation Cast Lead. The political and military echelons are still assessing whether a significant expansion of operations is worth it. As always in the Middle East, some dramatic event may drastically alter their assessments with immediate consequences. But for now, let us take stock of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.
1) There is no doubt that at this point in time, Israel has weakened Hamas's political and military organizations.
2) the IDF has clearly re-established its deterrence force against the Palestinians and against other actors in the region.
3) the army and government have made progress in finding ways to reduce Palestinian arms smuggling.
4) the operation revealed the extent of Hamas's missile capabilities, averting a possible surprise in the future.
5) Cast Lead has managed to dent rocket firing in the short term, and has increased the pressure on Hamas to do so over the long term.
The means by which Israel has achieved its objectives have not been pretty. From the beginning, the army treated this as a war rather than a policing operation. The IDF assumed correctly that Hamas would use civilian sites for defensive and offensive purposes. Mosques, hospitals, and residences have all served Hamas as storage depots, launching sites, and booby-trapped defensive installations so far in this war. Thus, the army was aggressive from the outset. Air strikes flattened suspected traps, and ground troops called in planes, helicopters, and artillery whenever they encountered resistance that might embroil them in a deadly ambush or remote-controlled bombing. So far, this strategy has proven very effective at reducing IDF casualties. It has also led to the deaths of many Hamas fighters. Hamas miscalculated in thinking that the IDF would shy away from such tactics and that it would therefore be able to inflict many casualties on the invading forces. The greatest victims of this miscalculation have of course been the civilians of Gaza. I do not share the view that the civilian casualties will strengthen Hamas over the long term. Such an argument could have been made if Hamas had distinguished itself in the fighting; so far it has not done so, and it has proven incapable of protecting its population.
The question now is whether, given these achievements, Israel is already in a position to force Hamas to agree to a truce that will represent a satisfactory improvement of the status quo ante, or whether such an outcome will require more fighting. Any cease fire must set the conditions for a permanent attenuation of Hamas. The good news is that Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S. are all interested in the reduction of Hamas's standing in the region. Egypt has certainly increased its standing vis-a-vis Hamas as a result of the IDF operation, and it will be eager to solidify these gains. It may very well do so by re-inserting forces loyal to the PA into Gaza through a stage-managed "reconciliation." The more difficult problem is finding a way to combat Hamas's ability to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Although a number of options have been suggested, none of them can actually be relied upon by Israel. The various Arab or European offers of help in border monitoring or even tunnel detection will not do the trick. The bulk of the work has to be accomplished during this operation.
With these factors in mind, it is in Israel's interest to prolong the operation, while keeping it at the current intensity. Reserves do not have to be poured into heavy urban combat in Gaza City or the refugee camps. They can continue to chip away at Hamas at the current fashion, in the north of the strip, while in the south, Israel gathers intelligence on and destroys the tunnel networks. The operations in southern Gaza could conceivable continue even after the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Israel and the U.S. share an interest in putting in place mechanisms for a management of the Philadelphi Corridor that will diminish the flow of arms and terrorists from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza and possibly vice versa.