Uri Blau
December 30, 2008 - 1:00am

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi believes that any occupation of Gaza by the army must end as soon as possible, according to an officer who participated in discussions and war games related to such an operation. At the same time, however, Ashkenazi fears that if the operation ends too quickly, the IDF will only have to go back into the Gaza Strip later.

The officer added that Ashkenazi seeks to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians, but recognizes that this cannot be prevented completely.

One possibility examined during the war games was that international aid organizations might stop supplying Palestinian civilians' basic needs in areas where the IDF is operating. This would require Israel to do so in their stead. In that case, Israel might reestablish a scaled-down version of the Civil Administration that governed Gaza in the pre-Oslo era. According to people who participated in the war games, the IDF charted several different scenarios, from a brief incursion followed by immediate withdrawal to a full-scale reoccupation of Gaza. The latter plan, however, would be implemented only if the government decided to try to fundamentally change the regional balance of power via military force - a decision that, as far as is known, has not yet been made.

The games also assumed that Hamas would try to force a rapid withdrawal via painful attacks on IDF forces. These would include roadside bombs, suicide bombings, sniper fire and assaults involving sophisticated weaponry. Hamas would also try to ensure that the fighting took place as much as possible in crowded urban areas. Any ground operation is liable to entail many casualties among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, as well as damage to Gaza's infrastructure.

When fighting in urban areas, however, IDF soldiers would be subjected to severe restrictions, including an absolute prohibition on deliberate attacks on civilian targets and strict compliance with the laws of war, such as the rule against using civilians as human shields.

The war games factored in massive pressure from the Israeli media to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. Under this scenario, the media would accuse the army of having failed to learn the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, slam it for its restraint in the face of the ongoing rocket attacks and argue that there is no choice but to launch a large-scale invasion of the Strip.

In the exercises, as in reality, the IDF Spokesman stressed that Israel's goal is not to reoccupy Gaza, and that Palestinian civilian casualties stem from Hamas' insistence on operating in crowded urban areas.

The war games also charted possible responses from both the Israeli public and the international community, and so far, the army's predictions have largely proven accurate. There have been international efforts to end the fighting through diplomacy, but nothing beyond that; demonstrations by Arab Israelis that could pose security threats; demonstrations and riots in other Arab countries; unrest in the West Bank that could degenerate into violent clashes; no active involvement by Syria and Lebanon; growing tension with Hezbollah, though the army still believes that the chances of a second front are low; and virtually obligatory expressions of diplomatic displeasure by Egypt and Jordan.

The army's goals during the operation include ending Palestinian terror attacks on Israel's home front, gaining operational freedom of action in Gaza, ending the Palestinian Authority's support for terror, preventing escalation in the north, keeping civilian agencies in Gaza functioning so as to prevent a humanitarian crisis, and minimal damage to Israel's relationships with Jordan and Egypt. These scenarios may be yet to be realized as well.


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