Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day 5: Operation Pillar of Cloud

It is the fifth day of Israel's Operation "Pillar of Cloud," in Gaza, an operation which the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) undertook to put a stop to the rocket fire that Israeli towns and cities had been absorbing for weeks from Gaza.

Estimates of the number of rockets that have been fired from Gaza vary between 400 and 500.  All of these rockets, sent by Hamas and affiliated organizations, have been aimed at civilians.  Most of these are "Grad" Rockets, with a maximum distance of approximately 40 km.  This puts cities like Ashdod, Ashquelon, Beersheva and Sderot at risk but not Israel's major population centres.  Hamas also has a number of "Fajr 5" rockets, which apparently have a range of up to 75 km.  These rockets could hit cities as far away as Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and other population centres in the Sharon region.  However, the IDF claims to have eliminated many of the more sophisticated launching platforms for these rockets through its pinpoint air attacks.  As a result, only a small number of Fajr 5 rockets have actually been fired.

Earlier today, a Hamas rocket hit a building in the coastal city of Ashquelon.  Two people were injured and the building suffered significant damage.

IDF Soldier watching Iron Dome Interceptor Deploy
On the Israeli side, one of the major stories of this operation so far has been the "Iron Dome" missile defence system.    Produced by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, the Iron Dome system fires interceptor rockets in incoming missiles and blows them out of the air with an estimated 80% success rate.  Two Fajr 5 missiles, fired at Tel-Aviv, have been stopped by the Iron Dome sytem.  In total, reports have estimated that Israel has shot down between 220 and 250 incoming missiles using this system, out of a total of between 400 and 500 rockets.  Using satellite rader, the Iron Dome system detects where the missiles are headed and makes a decision about whether or not they should be intercepted.  If the incoming missile or rocket is headed to an open space area or into the water, the Iron Dome does not fire.  If the missile is headed towards a population centre or other important target, it deploys.  Without the Iron Dome system in place, Israel would have sustained very significant damage during the first four days of this operation.

Different sources from Gaza have estimated that between 40 and 50 people have been killed in Gaza as a result of the IDF operations, with between 10 and 15 of these characterized as "civilian casualties."  Considering that there are estimates that Israel has carried out more than 1,000 different attacks, there is ample evidence that the IDF is taking significant precautions to minimize if not eliminate civilian casualties.  Despite what some of the world's media might have people believe, this is certainly nothing like the situation in Syria where thousands of civilians have been targeted and killed by the Syrian military. 

That is not to say that this is a very good situation for the people of Gaza to put it mildly.  But it is important to remember that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  The people of Gaza elected a Hamas government, with the avowed goal of destroying Israel.  Rather than invest in infrastucture, economic opportunity and education, the Hamas government has spent an enormous amount of money building up its weapons supplies and has insisted on firing rockets and missiles at Israeli towns, with or without Israeli provocation.  Hamas supporters respond by indicating that Israel has "blockaded" Gaza and turned it into an "open air prison."  While there is some truth to the fact that Israel has tried to control what goes into Gaza, the main concern is, of course a ban on weaponry entering the strip.  Israelis (and everyone else around the world) know full well that Hamas would use any weapons that it had against Israel without any concern about the ramifications.  At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has opened the borders with Gaza and Hamas has been able to bring large supplies of more sophisticated arms to Gaza from Egypt and other countries. 

Contrast Gaza with the other Palestinian Authority areas.  Many of these areas have seen an increase in Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation, signfiicant growth in the Palestinian economy and relatively few military confrontations.  With a large area of beachfront access, monetary contributions from countries around the world and a population in need of economic opportunity, Gaza could make significant progress if it were to devote its attention to economic development rather than ongoing hostility with Israel.

Meanwhile, as far as the current operation is concerned, there is mounting worldwide political pressure on Israel to agree to some sort of cease fire.  Many Israelis are opposed to an early cease fire as are most of Israel's southern residents.  Israel has had many skirmishes with Hamas over the seven years since Israel withdrew from Gaza.  Each time, once there is some sort of cease fire in place, after a few days, or weeks, Hamas soon starts to fire rockets once again at Israeli towns and cities.  The situation becomes untenable for Israeli residents of the towns and cities that are under fire and they are forced to again call on the IDF to respond.  Many Israelis have been calling for the IDF to launch a full scale ground operation and cause much more severe damage to Hamas' ability to continue its attacks against Israel.  However, the cost of this type of operation would be quite high.  Both sides could suffer a large number of casualties and the Israeli government is wary of putting its troops in harm's way if it is not absolutely necessary.

Beyond the concern about the troops, and the possible casualty level in Gaza, there is no assurance that a sustained ground assault would actually improve the political situation.  If the people of Gaza are intent on supporting a Hamas government, which much of the world views as a terrorist organization, there is little chance that Israel will be able to reach a peace deal, even a short or medium term arrangement, any time soon.  Unfortunately, this may mean that Israel will have to conduct this type of operation again, even after a cease fire, once Hamas again begins firing rockets and missiles at Israel.

While the Israeli cabinet on Friday approved of an order for the IDF to call up to 75,000 reserve troops to report for duty, it is unclear whether or not the IDF will actually proceed with an all out ground assault.  Comments from worldwide political leaders seem to suggest that a cease fire of some sort is imminent and Prime Minister Netanyahu is apparently under a great deal of worldwide pressure to agree to terms of a truce.  Israel continues to maintain that any cessation of hostilities arrangement must include an absolute ban on any kind of missile or rocket fire from Gaza.  Without this type of deal in place, it is unlikely that Israel will agree to an early cease fire. 

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