By John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas’ underground Gaza Strip infrastructure is about defeating terrorism, yes — but even graver issues are involved.
Hamas’s long record of indiscriminate rocket attacks (over 11,000 since Israel left Gaza in 2005), its suicide bombers and its determination to destroy the Jewish state are all too real.
This is more than ample justification for Israel not just to retaliate against Hamas, but to destroy it.
But in Gaza today, Israel is also battling the existential peril of Iran’s nuclear program.
Despite Hamas’ 2011 refusal to support Assad in Syria, Iran never forgot Hamas’ potential usefulness against “the little Satan”; Tehran and Hamas have resumed their strategic partnership.
By confronting Hamas, Israel is simultaneously also striving against the fear of a new holocaust courtesy of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Removing or at least substantially degrading this mortal threat is the key imperative in Gaza, and could take considerable time to accomplish.
Appreciating this objective requires understanding the interwoven layers of deterrence and military capability involved in Israel’s war on Iran’s nuclear threat.
Of course, a nuclear Iran is not simply Israel’s problem, but America’s as well. Unfortunately, Washington and its allies have abdicated their responsibilities.
President Obama says repeatedly that “all options are on the table,” but no one really believes he’ll ever order military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, and few think the endless talks with Iran will even slow Tehran’s progress. Israel is the only power that may act.
Yet Iran’s most likely response to an Israeli attack would be to unleash Hamas and Hezbollah against the Israeli civilian population.
A direct Iranian attack on Israel is unlikely, since Tehran wouldn’t want to risk an Israeli nuclear response. Retaliating indirectly through its terrorist surrogates is safer, while providing an air of plausible deniability.
Other options (closing the Strait of Hormuz; attacking US forces in the region) are highly unlikely, since they’d prompt an American military response, even from Obama.
(Incidentally, an Israeli strike would not prompt a broader Middle East war, because key Arab states also oppose a nuclear Iran.)
Thus the Hamas and Hezbollah arsenals in Gaza and southern Lebanon are crucial.
Most of Hamas’ rockets are short-range and not terribly accurate. If they hit civilian targets, they are of course lethal, but for Hamas their main use is as a weapon of terror.
After the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, however, Tehran not only replenished Hezbollah’s more muscular missile stockpiles, but also substantially upgraded Hamas’ assets. Longer-range missiles began appearing in Gaza, smuggled in courtesy of Iran, such as the Fajr-5 and the Khaibar (Syrian-built from Iranian design).
As recently as March, Israel intercepted the Klos-C in the Red Sea carrying Khaibar missiles, mortars and assault-rifle ammunition, which Israel credibly says were Gaza-bound. Although shipping records were counterfeited, Iran was undoubtedly the source.
Thus Iran could order the launching of longer-range, more accurate missiles from both Lebanon and Gaza, substantially increasing the threat to Israel.
Despite Israel’s huge strides in missile defense, especially Iron Dome, such systems can still be defeated by overwhelming them with large numbers of rockets arriving simultaneously on a given target, especially if they’re launched from two disparate locations.
Iran fully understands the deterrent effect these missiles have on any Israeli government contemplating a pre-emptive strike. The Khaibar’s range of about 200 miles means it can strike Israel’s port of Haifa from Gaza.
With its 50-mile range, the Fajr-5 can hit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. (Missile ranges rise or fall depending on the weight of the weapons payload being carried.)
Israel needs to feel confident it can successfully attack Iran’s nuclear program without risking unacceptable civilian losses when Tehran retaliates via Hamas and Hezbollah.
Thus, Israel should destroy Hamas’ missile capabilities now, as well as any unmanned aerial vehicles in Gaza that might disperse biological or chemical weapons.
Ideally, Israel would do the same to Hezbollah — which helps explain why Hezbollah has held back during the current hostilities.
But there is little doubt that Iran and Hamas desperately hope John Kerry or others will manage to impose a cease-fire in Gaza before their stocks of long-range missiles are uncovered and destroyed.
This is why it is so important that Israel continue its Gaza operations for as long as it deems necessary, precisely to destroy those missiles.
In so doing, Israel is acting not only in its own legitimate self-defense, but in America’s as well.