The War on Gaza, 2008–2009

The War on Gaza, 2008–2009
Israel’s Strategic Quandary

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Destroyed Mosque

The remains of a mosque in Rafah, demolished during Israel's 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip.

12 January 2009
International Solidarity Movement Palestine


The war on Gaza (2008–9) constituted the culmination of a series of Israeli military operations against the Strip that started during the second Palestinian intifada and were only interrupted by fragile cease-fires. Between October 2003 and January 2005, when it was still inside the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army conducted twelve military operationsassassinating senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement (PIJ) leaders, conducting air and artillery strikes, launching ground incursions lasting several days at a time, and bulldozing Palestinian residential areas to establish buffer zones along the northern and southern Gaza borders. Palestinian losses included at least 191 killed and 1,130 wounded; 18 Israeli civilians were killed and 38 wounded.

Immediately after completing the withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, Israel stepped up Hamas and PIJ assassinations in the West Bank, prompting the Gaza-based factions to fire rockets and mortars into Israel in response. Hamas and PIJ repeatedly offered a full cease fire on both the Gaza and West Bank fronts, but Israel adamantly refused such linkage on the grounds that it would constrain its freedom of action on the West Bank. But for Hamas and PIJ, there was no incentive to agree to a permanent cease-fire limited to Gaza that gave Israel a free hand to pursue and assassinate their cadres and operatives in the West Bank. From September 2005 through November 2006, Israel launched another eight operations aimed at suppressing Palestinian resistance and deepening Israel’s defensive buffer zones within Gaza.

In January 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The government it formed in March was boycotted by the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia, and the UN), and Israel declared the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority a “hostile entity” in April 2006. Several attempts at forming a Hamas–Fatah unity government failed, and Hamas eventually seized control of Gaza in June 2007. However, in one of these attempts, in late November 2006, President Mahmoud Abbas had secured an unwritten six-month cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian factions (but excluding PIJ) in Gaza.

From the end of November 2006 until late February 2008—a full 15 months—the cease-fire held well, despite Israel’s search for soldier Gilad Shalit (who had been captured in June 2006) and its continued siege and routine military operations. On 27 February 2008, Israel launched Operation Hot Winter in response to Gaza rocket fire: 111 Palestinians (at least half of whom were civilians) were killed and over 400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were wounded. Two Israeli soldiers and one civilian were killed. Between March and June 2008, Israel and Gaza continued to exchange attacks and rocket fire, spurring intensive Egyptian attempts to reach a cease-fire. On 19 June 2008, Hamas and Israel agreed “in principle” on a phased cease-fire to last for 6 months. Hamas largely observed the cease-fire until 4 November.

By the time Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on 27 December 2008, the Gaza Strip had been under varying degrees of closure. Social and economic conditions in the Strip in late 2008 were dire, and Hamas faced growing domestic pressure to act or to renew the cease-fire under more favorable terms. As Hamas was contemplating its options, Israel assassinated a senior PIJ commander in Jenin on 15 December, sparking a round of attacks from both Israel and Hamas as a result. On 18 December, Hamas finally declared that it would not renew the cease-fire. Five days later, three Hamas members were shot dead by the Israeli army near the border fence in stark violation of the cease-fire. Hamas responded with eighty rockets and mortars. On 26 December, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak approved a detailed offensive plan known as Operation Cast Lead. Hamas would call it the Battle of al-Furqan (the Battle of Right against Wrong).

The Three-Phase Assault

The Israeli assault was planned as a three-phase operation: (1) an air assault to destroy a list of targets assembled over the previous 6 months; (2) a ground incursion into open and suburban areas to secure control of areas from which Palestinian rockets were fired into Israel and to pursue other Hamas-affiliated targets; and (3) deep incursions into Palestinian towns and camps so as to “deal a knock-out blow” to Hamas.

Phase One began with an air assault at midday on 27 December, hitting more than fifty targets across the Gaza Strip, including a police graduation ceremony that killed 60 cadets. By the end of the day at least 228 Palestinians had been killed and more than 700 wounded; it was the highest single-day Palestinian death toll in the occupied territories since 1967. The next week essentially consisted of a duel between Israeli air power (augmented by naval gunfire and artillery strikes) on the one hand, and Palestinian rocket and mortar fire aimed largely at the “Gaza envelope” (the Israeli localities surrounding the Strip) on the other. One Palestinian rocket hit Beersheba, 40 kilometers from the Gaza border on 30 December, marking the farthest strike to date. 

As Phase One unfolded, Israel’s main targets were (a) Hamas and the resistance’s military assets, including its rocket-launching and productions sites; (b) resistance leaders and military commanders, including the offices of PM Ismail Haniyeh; (c) smuggling tunnels along the Rafah border; and (d) basic facilities, such as the Gaza power grid. Numerous civilian sites including the Islamic University of Gaza and schools and mosques alleged to be weapons depots were also struck. After rejecting a French truce proposal calling for an immediate cease-fire, the Israeli cabinet approved Phase Two.

Phase Two began on the evening of 3 January 2009, with a massive artillery barrage. Ground forces were sent into Gaza for the first time: the Paratroops, Givati, and Golani Brigades and the 410st Armored Brigade, along with artillery support, and special engineering and intelligence units—in total, slightly more than 10,000 troops. Israeli forces rapidly deployed to segment the Strip into three main operational zones: a northern zone running from the northern Gaza border south to Netzarim Junction; a central zone from Netzarim Junction to Khan Yunis; and a southern zone from Khan Yunis to the Rafah border.

For the next two weeks, Israeli operations focused on controlling open areas and encircling towns and refugee camps but stopped short of making deep incursions into densely populated areas. After heavy fighting on the outskirts of the northern district of Gaza City, the Israeli army then widened its attacks to Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, and the Israeli government announced on 11 January that army reserves would be called up. As the war spilled into a third week with much the same pattern as before, international pressure on Israel began to grow, with the International Committee of the Red Cross expressing concern at Palestinian civilian casualties. On 11 January, Israel launched its deepest ground incursions into Gaza City, conducting a two-front assault resulting in some of the heaviest fighting since the war began, causing many residents to flee and swelling to 90,000 the number of Gazans who had left their homes.

During the next week of fighting, Israel significantly increased its air and naval attacks (even as Egypt was trying to broker a cease-fire) in an evident attempt to improve its bargaining position and defer the need to move on to Phase Three, which would entail heavy Israeli casualties and bear a high domestic and international political cost. On 15 January, Israel bombed an UNRWA compound in Gaza City with high-explosive and white phosphorous shells; the compound had sheltered 700 civilians. The attack created an international outcry. Over the next two days and as diplomatic activity for a cease-fire intensified, Israel escalated its strikes including a final massive bombardment of more than 100 tunnels along the Rafah border. On 18 January 2009, a cease-fire agreement was reached, twenty-three days after Israel launched the attack; the Israeli withdrawal was completed on 21 January.

Casualties and losses

The figures for Palestinian casualties are mostly in the same range. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, generally considered the most reliable source, gave a total of 1,417 killed, including 926 civilians (65 percent), 255 civil police not engaged in hostilities (18 percent), and 236 fighters (17 percent). Among the civilians, 313 children were killed (22 percent of the total number of Palestinians killed), 116 women (8 percent of the total), and at least 7 medical workers (1 percent of the total). The estimate of total Palestinians wounded was “over 5,000.” Israel reported 1,166 Palestinians killed, classifying 709 as “terror operatives” and 295 as “noncombatants” (including 89 children [under 16] and 49 women), with the remaining 162 of “uncertain status.” Israel reported 14 fatalities: 3 Israeli civilians and 1 soldier killed by Palestinian fire inside Israel; 4 soldiers killed by friendly fire inside Gaza; and 6 soldiers killed by Palestinians inside Gaza. Israel reported 336 soldiers and another 182 civilians wounded. Some 6,400 Palestinian homes were destroyed and 46,000 heavily damaged, leaving 100,000 Palestinians homeless. Government installations, educational and religious institutions, industrial facilities, and public infrastructure were devastated, with total property damage estimated at $1.6–$1.9 billion. Palestinian rocket fire caused massive disruption in Israel: roughly 800,000 people over a large area were within rocket range. Israeli public schools and universities closed throughout the southern part of the country, and at least 584 persons suffering from shock and “anxiety syndrome.”

Analysis and assessment

Despite causing widespread death and destruction, Israel failed to achieve a decisive or strategic victory in Cast Lead (or in its successive Gaza campaigns). Most Hamas leaders (and fighters) survived Cast Lead, and the group’s control of the Gaza Strip was not threatened. Furthermore, Hamas retained weapons and tunnels beneath the Gaza–Egypt border through which to smuggle more arms. Indeed, Cast Lead left Israel in a strategic quandary that it has yet to resolve: it needed to exert sufficient force to deter Hamas from attack or retaliation for Israeli actions, but it did not have the ability and/or will to reoccupy Gaza, which it would have had to do to defeat Hamas decisively. With no clear answer to “the day after” question, a reoccupation would enmesh Israel in a new long-term, costly, and open-ended presence with the constant threat that a more radical organization could take over Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal and/or in the absence of the Ramallah Palestinian Authority reasserting control over the Strip.

Cast Lead also reflected a significant shift in Israeli strategic thinking. The ability of the Palestinian resistance to fire rockets into Israel accelerated an already existing move within Israel toward “homeland defense” as a new and hitherto unprecedented addition to Israel’s traditionally offensive-minded doctrine. (This had been proposed in the Meridor Report in April 2006 but would become a formal part of Israeli doctrine only in 2015.) On an operational level, after 2008 Israel turned to technical/ technological defensive means, culminating in the deployment of the Iron Dome system in 2011.

During Cast Lead, Israel showed signs of investing in more effective means of defending its troops in the field, and it deployed its Trophy missile protective system against anti-tank missiles and RPGs on its latest Merkava-4 tank for the first time and used armored D9 bulldozers against resistance bunkers and defensive posts. It widely used drones in targeting and intelligence gathering operations; tested new means of digitized mapping and C4I systems; and employed robotic warfare, electronic and cyberwarfare, and dog sniffer teams. All of these methods were subsequently further integrated into Israel’s operational practices.

As for Hamas, its fighters relied on guerrilla warfare tactics; they sought to avoid large-scale open confrontations with the better-equipped Israeli forces and to make best defensive use of an urban environment that would negate some of Israel’s technical and tactical advantages. Tunnels were used for defensive cover from air and naval strikes and as command centers and munition and rocket production and stockpiling. The tunnels provided cover for surprise attacks and booby-traps, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and other defensive means to harass and distract Israeli troops. Notably, Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued unabated throughout Cast Lead, albeit with variable frequency; 59 rockets were fired on the first day of hostilities, reaching a low of 9 on 10 January, then rising again to 19 on the last day, 18 January. The constant rate of rocket fire reinforced the perception that Israel had failed to achieve its stated objective.

For Hamas and the resistance movement, the takeaway from the Israeli attack of 2008 was that it should seek new means of challenging Israel and undermining its deterrence and defensive based-strategy through a trilateral approach comprising (a) acquiring or developing longer range and more accurate missiles that could strike deeper and with greater effect into Israel, (b) strengthening Gaza’s underground defensive complex so as to protect fighters and leaders and rocket production facilities, and (c) developing a more “offensive” doctrine based on tunnels and land and sea infiltration (such as frogmen units) into Israeli-held territories. With the Shalit experience in mind, Hamas and the resistance also placed great emphasis on taking Israeli prisoners as a means of exerting psychological pressure on Israel and pursuing the long-standing Palestinian national aspiration to free fighters and political prisoners held in Israeli jails. (Shalit was eventually released in 2011 in return for 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.) After 2008, Hamas also sought to develop a more indigenous rocket production capability so as to reduce its reliance on weapons smuggled in from abroad. Nonetheless, Hamas’s attempt to use force as a means of breaking the siege directly or by mobilizing international pressure on Israel was not successful in 2008, and its long-term strategy of using Gaza as springboard for expanding its political role and presence has met with limited success since.

After its experiences in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008–9 in Gaza, Israel sought to adapt to the difficulty of securing a clear military decision by using concentrated force as a means of deferring the next round of conflict, or what later came to be known as “mowing the lawn.” For Israel, the problem was that this assumed that the opposing side could not accumulate sufficient strength in the interim so as to raise the cost of future Israeli actions beyond what was acceptable or tolerable. Furthermore, and more broadly, what Hamas confirmed (and Hizballah already had established during the 2006 South Lebanon war) was that the measure of defeat and victory has shifted in modern asymmetric warfare between regular (state) forces and armed non-state actors. The weaker party has the advantage in claiming victory through sheer survival, and the stronger party appears impotent (if not defeated) as long as the other side maintains the ability to pursue the battle. Thus (as with Hizballah in 2006), Hamas and its allies’ ability to maintain a steady if diminished rate of rocket fire throughout the 2008–9 confrontation undermined Israeli claims of victory.

Cast Lead had other consequences. With the growing ability of satellite TV to transmit live images from conflict zones (subsequently supplemented by social media), Israel had to contend with a worldwide public relations issue as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties rose, particularly that of women and children. The disproportion in casualties between the two sides also led to questions about the basis and legitimacy of Israel’s use of force. As a direct result, the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to examine competing claims of war crimes during the conflict. The mission presented its report (the Goldstone Report), and although it was ultimately disappointing, it nevertheless established an international precedent in holding Israel to account. The legal bases of Israel’s use of force and the question of disproportionality and Israel’s public image were to become a central feature of the 2008 war and subsequent campaigns. Despite Israel’s awareness of the constraining effect of such imagery on its military freedom of action, it has found no evident means of mitigating the negative impact of witnessing a regional superpower unleashing the full range of its military capabilities on a relatively small irregular force within a confined geographic space, packed with civilians.

Selected Bibliography: 

Cohen, Raphael S. et al. From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.

“Israel/ Gaza Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 Days of Death and Destruction.” London: Amnesty International, 2009.

Israeli army official website: https://www.idf.il/en/minisites/wars-and-operations/operation-cast-lead/.

Meridor, Dan and Ron Eldadi. Israel’s National Security Doctrine: The Report of the Committee on the Formulation of the National Security Doctrine (Meridor Committee), Ten Years Later. Tel Aviv: The Institute for National Security Studies, February 2019.

“Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.” Geneva: UN Human Rights Council, September 2009.

“Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups’ Rocket Attacks.” New York: Human Rights Watch, August 2009.

“Special Focus Operation Cast Lead.” Journal of Palestine Studies 151, no. 3 (Spring 2009). See in particular “Israeli Military Operations against Gaza, 2000–2008”: 122–38; “Prelude to Operation Cast Lead: Israel's Unilateral Disengagement to the Eve of War”: 139–68; “Statistical Indicators on the Eve of Operation Cast Lead”: 169–71; “The Israeli Arsenal Deployed against Gaza During Operation Cast Lead”: 175–91; “Day-by-Day Casualties, Israeli Sorties, and Palestinian Missiles Fired”: 201–6.

Zanotti, Jim et al. Israel and Hamas: Conflict in Gaza (2008–2009). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2009.