How Israel Could Win In Gaza

As Israel's operation in Gaza extends into week four, critics have begun to compare the assault on Hamas to the messy 2006 war on Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel's "massive retaliation" against Hamas rocket attacks is "bound to fail," wrote Steve Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, shortly after the conflict began. But Lebanon was not an unqualified failure, and Gaza could yet furnish Israel with a victory.

The 2006 war was handled badly. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent the unprepared Army into southern Lebanon with the aim of rooting out Hizbullah, and ending its rocket attacks. But there was no clear plan of attack, little intelligence about munitions depots, weak knowledge of the countryside and strong local support for the enemy. Hizbullah, by surviving, was able to claim victory. Yet Israel did manage to stop the rocket attacks—and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah later admitted that, had he known how fiercely Israel would retaliate, he never would have started the fight. The conventional view, that the war undermined the deterrent effect of the Israeli Army, ignores what Hizbullah is doing now. Lobbing only verbal attacks, it's disclaimed responsibility for the few rockets fired at Israel from its territory.

Jerusalem has also shown that it learned from its mistakes in 2006 by not declaring its intent to topple Hamas, collecting reams of intelligence before launching airstrikes (let alone a ground assault) and carefully matching its intentions to its capabilities. Since they've known Hamas could begin shooting again since the ceasefire last year, the Israelis had time to plan potential retaliation.

They also have some advantages that should stop Gaza from becoming Israel's next Waterloo. Years of occupation gave Jerusalem's intelligence agencies a more complete picture of Gaza—information such as identity of midlevel Hamas functionaries and the location of meeting places it never had about Hizbullah. Moreover, the Palestinian population is divided in its support for Hamas, and the territory is flatter (making it harder for Hamas to hide itself in nooks known only to locals) and smaller (making it easier to patrol from the air). Israel also controls all of Gaza's borders—which means it can strike at will to prevent Hamas fighters from escaping or re-arming.

While Israeli ground forces were pushing late last week into southern Gaza, where Hamas uses tunnels to smuggle in weapons from Egypt, its declared goal is not to close the tunnels, but to get others—Egypt, Europe—to do it. That leaves the rockets, and rocket attacks from Gaza have fallen by a third. In which case victory, narrowly defined, hardly seems out of reach.