Washington, Nov. 23: The conflict that has ended, for now, in a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel seemed like the latest episode in a periodic showdown.
But there was a second, strategic agenda unfolding, according to American and Israeli officials: The exchange was something of a practice run for any future armed confrontation with Iran, featuring improved rockets that can reach Jerusalem and new antimissile systems to counter them.
It is Iran, of course, that most preoccupies Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. While disagreeing on tactics, both have made it clear that time is short, probably measured in months, to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme.
And one key to their war-gaming has been cutting off Iran’s ability to slip next-generation missiles into the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where they could be launched by Iran’s surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, during any crisis over sanctions or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Michael B. Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US and a military historian, likened the insertion of Iranian missiles into Gaza to the Cuban missile crisis.
“In the Cuban missile crisis, the US was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union,” Oren said on Wednesday, as the ceasefire was declared. “In Operation Pillar of Defence,” the name the Israel Defence Force gave the Gaza operation, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran”.
It is an imprecise analogy. What the Soviet Union was slipping into Cuba 50 years ago was a nuclear arsenal. In Gaza, the rockets and parts that came from Iran were conventional, and, as the Israelis learned, still have significant accuracy problems. But from one point of view, Israel was using the Gaza battle to learn the capabilities of Hamas — the group that has the closest ties to Iran — as well as to disrupt those links.
Indeed, the first strike in the eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel arguably took place nearly a month before the fighting began — in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
A factory said to be producing light arms blew up in spectacular fashion on October 22, and within two days the Sudanese charged that it had been hit by four Israeli warplanes that easily penetrated the country’s airspace. Israelis will not talk about it. But Israeli and American officials maintain that Sudan has long been a prime transit point for smuggling Iranian Fajr rockets, the kind that Hamas launched against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over recent days.
The missile defence campaign that ensued over Israeli territory is being described as the most intense yet in real combat anywhere — and as having the potential to change warfare in the same way that novel applications of air power in the Spanish Civil War shaped combat in the skies ever since.