On November 18, 2009, almost exactly three years ago, members of an American-Israeli political and military delegation met with Israeli Defense Intelligence officers in Tel Aviv. Less than a year earlier, Israeli forces had invaded the Gaza Strip as part of Operation Cast Lead, which was meant to weaken Hamas, the Islamist organization -- classified as a terror group by the United States and Israel -- that gained power in Gaza in 2006.
The 2009 meeting provides some context for Israeli thinking on attacking Hamas, both in 2008-2009 and in the current offensive, which began with an Israeli air strike Wednesday on a senior Hamas figure. The meeting may also help to inform a question looming over this latest conflict: Will it escalate into a ground invasion, as it did in 2009?
A WikiLeaks-sourced State Department cable from the November 2009 meeting said that Israeli defense intelligence officials "described the sophisticated smuggling routes from Iran into the Gaza Strip, arguing that Hamas is now more powerful than prior to Operation Cast Lead." The Israeli officers also suggests that a goal of the Cast Lead invasion had been to set back Hamas's ability to make its own weapons – Israel is particularly concerned about rockets able to reach major cities – and that, while successful, it had been a temporary victory, as Hamas was already rebuilding. Here's the cable, with my emphasis added:
IDI also provided an analysis of weapons entering Gaza following Operation Cast Lead. IDI noted that one of the goals of Cast Lead was to damage Hamas' ability to produce its own weapons. In this regard, the IDF was successful, but Hamas is reconstituting its capabilities. According to the IDI, Hamas possibly possesses a few rockets with ranges over 40 km -- perhaps as far as 60-70 km, or within range of Tel Aviv. In addition, the IDI believes Hamas possesses quality AT systems such as the Kornet PG-29 and quality anti aircraft artillery (AAA). These weapons join an already potent arsenal including Grad rockets with ranges up to 40 km, ammonium perchlorate (APC) oxidizer for indigenous rocket production, hundreds of 120, 80 and 60 mm MBs, dozens of mortars, C5 K air-to surface rockets, PG-7 AT rockets and launchers, SA-7 MANPADS, PKS AAA MGs and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and quality AT, such as Sagger missiles and launchers, and light anti-tank weapon (LAW) rockets.
If Israeli military intelligence still believes that Hamas is advancing its ability to produce its own weapons, thus reducing its reliance on smuggling, then this would seem to inform potential Israeli thinking both for and against a potential ground invasion.
On the one hand, if Cast Lead is seen a success in shutting down Hamas weapon production, and if that production is re-starting, then that would seem to bolster the internal Israeli case for a ground invasion.
On the other, if the 2009 invasion just kicked the can down the road a few years, setting back Hamas weapons-production without actually solving the underlying threat posed by Gaza, then this could perhaps lead Israeli decision-makers to question the effectiveness of a military invasion as a solution.