How Will it End? Bibi's Unenviable Choice
The decision to redeploy IDF forces in Gaza was a "purely military one", but marks a crucial crossroads for the Israeli government to decide whether it will deal decisively with Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, or merely push off the next round of fighting for a few years.
That's according to former Israeli National Security Adviser Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.
Speaking to Arutz Sheva, Amidror explained that the IDF's mission upon entering Gaza was very clear: "to identify and destroy" Hamas's tunnel network.
Amidror clarified that there are three different kinds of tunnel networks in Gaza. The first two - smuggling tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza, and the vast "labyrinth" of tunnels under Gaza's urban population centers, meticulously constructed in preparation for any IDF ground operation - were not the target of Operation Protective Edge, although those discovered in the course of fighting were usually destroyed by IDF forces.
Only the limited number of tunnels leading into Israeli territory (several dozen - although the precise number may never be known), in preparation for deadly raids or kidnappings were actively targeted by Israel.
Echoing statements made earlier on Sunday to Arutz Sheva by a senior military official, Amidror said the IDF was close to completing that mission - although he suggested the military establish a post-operation committee of inquiry to among other things determine what gaps, if any, there were between the tunnels which were known about in advance, and those which were eventually discovered.
That being the case, there was therefore simply "no military logic" for forces to remain where they were once they had cleared the areas in question.
But as for the still constant rocket-fire against Israel's civilian population, Amidror emphasized that there is "no way" for the current operation to succeed in physically putting an end to it once and for all.
"No one promised or said that Israel can neutralize all of Hamas's rockets without gaining control of (all of) the ground in Gaza. There is no technical way to do it," he said.
What the current operation can achieve - and largely has - is "to destroy all the rockets and launchers that we know about," and then rely on the Iron Dome system to frustrate Hamas and Islamic Jihad's attempts to inflict significant harm on Israel's civilian population with what remains.
"You can't neutralize 10,000 rockets purely with air power," Amidror noted.
With the army's deployment, signalling the imminent end of the initial phase of the operation, the government is now faced with two stark options - neither of which is especially palatable.
The first would be to accept the aforementioned operational limitations and, once the tunnels had been destroyed along with what rockets and other terrorist infrastructure can be reached, to dig in for a long, attritional battle, in which both sides will slug it out for many more weeks or even months. (It is impossible to know precisely what remains of Gaza's arsenal of rockets, although Amidror estimates anything between 25-50% still remain out of approximately 10,000 rockets - enough to keep going for quite some time.)
The IDF could then choose to keep its forces where they are inside Gaza and engage with terrorist forces as they surface, or equally to withdraw altogether and exchange fire from Israeli territory, as it did during the initial phase of Operation Protective Edge.
Either way, says Amidror, Israel would eventually emerge the victor - at least in the short-term.
"We have more capabilities than the other side. They cannot hit us because of Iron Dome, while we can hit more Hamas infrastructure and kill more of their members every day."
Given the fact that, unlike in the past, the current Egyptian government is overtly hostile to Hamas, the Islamists will be unable to resupply quickly enough, "and in the end they will have to agree to a ceasefire without having gained any real advantages from this operation."
That, coupled with the deterrent effect of the damage Israel has already inflicted on Hamas ("When they come out and see the damage... that is already a very good lesson,") will ensure that terrorist groups "will not have the ability to rebuild for several years."
Nonetheless, rearm they eventually shall, and the current operation will ultimately only have succeeded in putting off the next round of fighting. "In the future, we'll need to face the problem again."
The second option - one advocated by several cabinet ministers, most notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman - would be to redeploy forces deeper inside Gaza, overthrowing Hamas and seizing complete control of the entire territory.
Clearing the Gaza Strip of all "weapons systems" and arresting or killing all terrorists there would take between 6-12 months in Amidror's estimation, and "cost us the lives of many soldiers and officers."
That option would provide a real and lasting solution to both the threat of rocket fire and "terror tunnels", rather than simply "postponing the next round with Hamas."
But such an operation would be "very costly, and very bloody."
Although he refused to speculate on what kind of casualty figures he would expect Israel to endure in such an offensive, "you can see from the first stage, which only involved the outlying parts of Gaza, what kind of price" both sides would pay.
Apart from the Israeli casualties, many more Palestinians would be killed in such an operation as well, given that it would involve entering Gaza's most densely-populated areas, which ground forces have so far avoided - bringing to bear more international pressure on Israel.
It would also pose long-term problems; such as what to do with the roughly 1.8 million Arabs living in the Gaza Strip "who no one wants to take responsibility for."
"If you are ready to pay the price, you have a solution," Amidror notes dryly. He observed that both options were "logical" in their own right, despite each having their own distinct disadvantages: "Either to pay a high price but to solve the problem, or not to pay the price and to meet the problem every five years."
For its part, Amidror estimates that despite the pain and anguish of further losses, the Israeli public would by and large prefer to pay the price and go for the second option, stamping out the threat once and for all.
"From their point of view the problem should be solved," he said.
"I'm not sure everyone is aware of the real price, but that is another issue."