[This text was first published as an article in "Dateline: Middle East" (http://www.isranet.org/Dateline/DatelineHome.htm)]
The Israeli invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 is best understood as the second in what is likely to become a series of limited wars meant to define and secure Israel’s borders. The first in this series was the war against Hezbollah in 2006. At stake in these wars is Israel’s ability to defend its borders without occupying the territory lying beyond them. Israel’s success in these wars will be judged by its ability to achieve through them what it previously sought to achieve through territorial occupation: secure borders.
In 2000, Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon, which it had previously occupied militarily. In 2005, Israel carried out another unilateral withdrawal, this time from the Gaza strip, evacuating 9,000 Jewish residents. In 2006, Israel fought a war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and now in 2008–9, Israel has fought a similar war in Gaza. Functionally, these two wars attempted to establish a level of deterrence capable of securing these borders without requiring an Israeli military presence beyond them.
Deterrence, where successful, is a much better choice. Rather than risking a permanent state of low-intensity hostility with a guerilla enemy, deterrence provides for long periods of quiet, although it is to be expected that this “peace” will be tentative and interspersed with occasional conflicts. Unlike the endless combat faced by a static occupying force, border wars allow the IDF to be used to its full potential while still benefiting from a level of public and international support which no occupation can sustain.
Israeli success in these border wars is thus best measured by the quality and duration of the calm which follows them: did Israel establish deterrence, i.e. a quiet border? The Israeli campaign of 2006, for all its logistical failures and its inability to remove Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, nonetheless produced a border which, even today, remains effectively quiet. In the more recent Gaza war, the IDF appears to have put behind it the operational glitches of 2006. Israel also made no notable effort to remove Hamas from power. From a broader strategic perspective, the overriding question is the same in Gaza and Lebanon: will Israel’s borders remain calm?
Hamas has been less amenable to deterrence than has Hezbollah, but the six-month ceasefire with Hamas which held, albeit imperfectly, through the second half of 2008 provides an auspicious indication. In the current conflict—in which Israel’s immediate goal is to achieve calm, and Hamas’s immediate goal is to maintain their ability to fire at will upon Israel—the longer a ceasefire lasts, the more it resembles effective deterrence. It is reasonable to believe that Hamas aggression will be more deterrable now than it was in the middle of 2008 and that Israel’s strategic shift from occupation to deterrence will begin to bear fruit in the south as it has done in the north.
The withdrawal from Lebanon can be considered a success, given that the occupation of southern Lebanon has been replaced by effective deterrence and a quiet border for the greater part of the last eight years. The withdrawal from Gaza will prove successful when periodic border wars such as the recent one permit Israel to establish meaningful periods of calm on that border as well. Fortunately, last year’s six-month period of negotiated calm and the extensive bruising suffered by Hamas in the recent war suggest that, while the Gaza situation will no doubt remain bleak and difficult for years to come, definite progress has been made towards effective deterrence. This bodes well for the possibility of future unilateral withdrawals.