By Ehud Eilam
Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research
Following the ongoing tension between Israel and Hamas it is important to remember that:
Israel had four major collisions in the Gaza Strip since 1949. Two of them, in 1956 and 1967, were part of high intensity wars with Egypt, while those in 2008-2009 and 2014 were against a hybrid foe, the Hamas. Egypt in 1956 and 1967 and the Hamas in 2008-2009 and 2014 were Israel’s sworn enemies. In spite of this official position various negotiations, secret or not, with mediators or not, led to all kinds of understandings and cease fires, between Israel and Egypt in 1949-1967 and between Israel and Hamas since 2007. The diplomatic maneuvers did postpone a major confrontation, but did not prevent it.
A few months after the 1956 war, international pressure forced Israel to leave the Gaza Strip, but after the 1967 showdown Israel occupied all the Gaza Strip for about 27 years. Following the confrontations of 2008-2009 and 2014 Israel immediately abandoned the land it had seized in the Gaza Strip. There was therefore a major difference between the four wars, as far as the Israeli occupation period in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, the two Israeli offensives, in 1956 and 2008-2009, dramatically reduced assaults against Israeli targets in the area around the Gaza Strip. For several years they even prevented those attacks. This outcome persuaded Israel that a full scale attack provided a better solution than a series of raids in a low intensity war. Israel was frustrated, however, that those wars (in 1956, 1967 and 2008-2009) failed to topple the regimes controlling the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the Israeli attack against Nasser in 1956 and 1967, and against the Hamas in 2008-2009, may have rendered them more hostile toward Israel.
The Egyptian military in 1956 and 1967 could have exploited the Gaza Strip as a jumping point into Israel, but the Egyptian tanks did not invade then. The Hamas on the other hand, before and during the confrontations of 2008-2009 and 2014 launched mortars and rockets that caused casualties and damages, harassing and threatening Israeli citizens and soldiers. Israel had defensive options, but traditional reasons, such as the cost of fortifications, caused it to attack in all the three wars.
In 1956, 1967, 2008-2009 and 2014, the defender of the Gaza Strip lacked depth and could not have pushed back the Israeli offensive by launching counter attacks. At best the Arab forces tried to inflict upon the IDF as many casualties as possible, and slow down its advance. While in 1956 and 1967 the entire Gaza Strip was seized in one day or in a few days in 2008-2009 and 2014, most of it was not taken because of political and military reasons. Capturing that hornet’s nest could have been worse than continuing fighting against the Hamas from the outside.
From Israel’s Way of War: A Strategic and Operational Analysis, 1948–2014 © 2016 Ehud Eilam by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.