The arguments against a widescale military operation in the Gaza Strip are understandable. Hamas is deeply rooted amid the local population, and chances of rooting it out are slim. The fear of wounded and casualties and undertaking a mission that could encounter complications is also understandable, as is the priority currently being given to the strategic challenges Israel faces on its northern front.
For these and other reasons, Israel is currently using limited force against Hamas, even in light of the recent border breach. This tactic is designed to reduce its ability to cause Israel harm. Right now, the IDF's preferred use of force is "intelligence fire" – combatting the organization by collecting precise intelligence and then executing precision strikes (mostly from the air), with the expectation being that the combination of the two will cause Hamas to change its behavior. This approach also saves Israel casualties.
Israel has no choice but to make Hamas pay dearly from time to time.
But unfortunately, Israel has not secured quiet on the Gaza border, but rather longer escalations of violence and states of emergency in western Negev communities that last longer and comes with serious economic costs and the sense that the other side has won a victory. The enemy is also learning and exerting itself to prevent precise information from reaching the IDF and render Israeli strikes less effective through fortifications, spreading itself out, hiding, and using human shields. Hamas understands that Israel is disinclined to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and senses that it can continue its violent clashes with Israel without paying a heavy price for them.
But it seems that Israel has no choice but to make Hamas pay dearly from time to time, which will deter it for longer periods of time. It looks like a short-term ground operation will bring better results than Israel's activity thus far. We need to maneuver inside enemy territory, locate them, and destroy them, or tie the hands of its members by smashing the myth of "popular resistance." The "intelligence fire" efforts are important, but cannot serve as anything other than support for the main work, which must take place on the ground.
The IDF needs to be prepared to carry out a quick, broad move. First, it is important to take territory that serves as a base for terrorist organizations to eradicate their freedom of action. Rocket fire on Israeli citizens will slow down only when Israeli forces are in control of the area, wipe out the enemy forces, and prevent rockets from being fired.
To bolster deterrence, it is vital to demonstrate the ability to maneuver and secure a decisive victory.
Second, maneuverability is a key element in securing deterrence. The enemy can withstand heavy damage from airstrikes, but they do not put its continued rule in danger. On the other hand, the occupation of a significant swathe of territory is a much more serious challenge. To bolster deterrence, it is vital to demonstrate the ability to maneuver and secure a decisive victory, which would also smash the enemy's belief that Israeli society is weak and afraid of losses. A high level of combat engagement comes at a cost, but a relatively short battle time could result in fewer casualties both on the front and the homefront.
Finally, ground maneuvers are key to defeating a conventional military, and that is a threat that could come to pass on Israel's other fronts. Developing the army's ground capabilities requires time, whereas ignoring it is a dangerous gamble.
There is also a moral aspect to the choice of a ground operation in Gaza – we cannot accept a situation in which civilians form a protective ring around the IDF.
Major operations, to take place every so often, will secure temporary deterrence that will allow long-term cease-fires and give the residents of the western Negev quiet. The Israeli public must realize that the Gaza situation cannot be solved in the blink of an eye. It can only be addressed through a long-term military struggle in which victory will come in stages. Israel's ability to wage a war of attrition in Gaza and retain a variety of options for action is a testimony to its power.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.