LET’S START from the end. Israel has no intention of launching a preemptive war against Hamas in Gaza ‒ or so senior military and political sources tell The Jerusalem Report.
Hamas is not hiding its efforts to regroup and strengthen its military posture following the defeat it suffered in summer 2014, in the 51 days of its third war with the IDF.
The Palestinian Islamist movement is once again digging underground tunnels, manufacturing rockets, recruiting troops and smuggling weapons from every possible source via tunnels along the Sinai border.
Gathering intelligence about Hamas’s capabilities and intentions will be one of the main challenges facing Nadav Argaman, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named as the new head of the Israel Security Agency (ISA, better known as the Shin Bet) on February 11. Argaman, a 33-year veteran of the organization, will replace Yoram Cohen who decided to step down after five years in office, although he could have requested that his term be extended for another year.
A native of Kibbutz Hamadia in the Jordan Valley, Argaman, 55, joined the agency in 1983 after IDF service as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
He was recruited to the Shin Bet’s operations department, rising through the ranks to become department chief in 2003. Four years later, he was assigned as the agency’s envoy in North America, where he supervised the security of diplomatic missions, working closely with local police forces and the FBI.
Argaman’s appointment as the 13th chief of the Shin Bet indicates the sea change the agency has been undergoing in recent years.
Since the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula (returned to Egypt in 1982), the Shin Bet has engaged primarily in the struggle against Palestinian terrorism. Accordingly, the three chiefs over the past 16 years – Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin and Cohen came from departments that dealt directly with the Palestinians. Until a decade ago, the main tool of the agency Shin Bet in its struggle against Palestinian terror groups was HUMINT (human intelligence) ‒ the craft of locating, recruiting and running agents.
Argaman, on the other hand, is a product of the agency’s operations department, which in recent years has become ever more reliant on SIGINT (signal intelligence, the use of intercepted communication) for operations. Overall, the Shin Bet has been making much greater use of SIGINT, but its focus remains on human intelligence.
The challenges facing Argaman are complex.
He must fine-tune the ISA to deal with the current wave of Palestinian terrorism characterized by young “lone wolf” perpetrators with no organizational affiliation or signature. This makes the mission of collecting information about their plans almost impossible. The Shin Bet has been very successful in penetrating Palestinian groups, but even the best intelligence agency in the world is incapable of reading the minds of individuals who, on impulse, take a knife, scissors or even use a car as a weapon to kill innocent Israelis.
Argaman may find himself facing a situation in which during the course of his five-year term, if the peace process is not restarted, the Palestinian Authority may disintegrate or the ongoing security cooperation between the PA, the Shin Bet and the IDF could be halted. If either of these scenarios were to come about, the West Bank could be plunged into chaos and anarchy, making the agency’s mission even harder and forcing it to become even more repressive.
As for Gaza, the Israeli media and some cabinet ministers continue to beat the drums of war. The leading and most vociferous force is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party. According to leaks from a recent “secret” cabinet session, Bennett called upon the government to unleash the military to destroy the new tunnels being dug by Hamas. It is not clear how serious he was or whether he just wanted to embarrass and bash Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as he did during the last war in Gaza.
No doubt that from his vantage point in the Education Ministry where, according to critics, he is systematically eroding democratic values by censoring textbooks and promoting his associates, it is very easy to issue sensational statements. Bennett knows they will not be accepted. And, even if they are endorsed, he will not bear the responsibility for executing them ‒ and certainly not their ramifications.
Furthermore, Bennett knows very well that Netanyahu and Ya’alon are opposed to any adventurous military move against Hamas at this stage. The cautious approach of the prime minister and defense minister is supported by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his generals.
Hamas doesn’t want a war either ‒ its leaders have said so publicly time and again ‒ though they also say they will stand up to any Israeli “aggression” and fight. Their lack of desire to renew hostilities is evident on the ground as Hamas is doing almost everything possible to keep the border quiet.
SINCE THE last war, Hamas hasn’t fired one single missile against Israel. All of the dozens of rockets that have been fired from Gaza into Israel were launched by small renegade jihadi groups that do not accept Hamas’s authority. Hamas’s security services do their best to arrest the perpetrators and jail them. The rockets have caused no casualties or damage to property.
There has been intense Israeli media coverage of the complaints by residents of rural communities near the Gaza border that they have heard digging noises and are worried that new tunnels are being dug by Hamas under their homes. However, neither the Shin Bet nor the IDF’s military intelligence have a shred of intelligence to substantiate or verify the claim that Hamas has already managed to dig a tunnel under Israeli territory. Nevertheless, lack of verification doesn’t mean that such an eventuality is not possible.
In recent months, the IDF and Shin Bet have increased their efforts in four areas against Hamas’s tunnels – engineering, intelligence, research and development, and prevention. The IDF has allocated to the Gaza division, which is in charge of defending the border, 100 pieces of heavy equipment, including excavating machines, to try and determine whether, indeed, a tunnel or tunnels already have been dug inside Israeli territory – so far, with no results.
In the intelligence field, Shin Bet’s case officers and its SIGINT operators backed by military intelligence are trying to collect information about tunnel routes and Hamas’s intentions. If and when such intelligence is obtained, it will help the IDF to destroy the tunnels when necessary.
During Operation Protective Edge, the official title of the 2014 Gaza war, precise intelligence led the army to find the locations of 31 tunnels leading to Israel and destroy them.
Israeli firms, led by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, are working to develop technological solutions such as seismic machines that could help uncover the tunnels during construction or after they have been completed. More than one billion shekels have been earmarked for such projects. But so far no scientific-technological-engineering solution has been found.
Recently, the US government agreed to allocate $100 million for the Israeli projects, as it did for Egypt, which also suffers from the problem of Hamas smuggling tunnels. The US interest is twofold: First, to help Israel and Egypt improve their security, but Washington also hopes that, if a solution is developed, it could be used against the smuggling tunnels along its border with Mexico.
As for preventive measures, Eisenkot hinted recently that covert operations were in motion. This is of special interest because in early February at least five Gaza tunnels collapsed, killing around a dozen Hamas operatives who were working on them. Those accidents likely happened because Hamas, in its haste to build as many tunnels as possible, has compromised on safety.
On the other hand, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who is head of the civilian administration in the West Bank with responsibility also over Gaza, spoke in a recent interview with an Arab newspaper about “God’s hand” being behind the accidents.
It may well be that his words were part of psychological warfare to sow fear and doubt among the Hamas rank and file, and deter them from digging. The possibility that man-made forces could have helped cause the accidents should not be ruled out, however.
In any case, it is clear that Hamas is sparing no effort to rapidly build tunnels that will be deeper, larger, hardened and better than the ones that were destroyed by Israel ‒ some may be wide enough to allow motorcycles and even cars to travel underground. Hamas is believed to employ some 1,000 workers capable of digging some 50 meters of tunnels per week. Yet, these efforts have come at the expense of reconstructing Gaza following the devastation and damage caused to thousands of buildings during the 2014 war.
Hamas is under siege by both Israel and Egypt, which closely cooperate against Hamas and Islamic State terrorists in Sinai.
Hamas wants to see both sieges lifted, which should in the long term be in Israel’s interest, too. If there were a period of extended cessation of hostilities and Gaza became economically viable, this would result in a contented population whose anger and desire to turn against Israel would be dissipated.
While the fact that Hamas is preparing a new round of hostilities is no secret, this is not sufficient reason for Israel to launch a preemptive strike. For one thing, Israel is also upgrading and improving its capabilities in preparation for a war.
With the type of logic being advocated by Bennett and others, Israel would also have to embark on a preemptive strike against Hezbollah since the Shi’ite Lebanese movement is also involved in preparations for a war against Israel.
Hezbollah, with 100,000 rockets capable of hitting any strategic or military site in Israel poses a greater threat than Hamas. War games, simulations and worst-case scenarios by the IDF predict that, in the event of a war with Hezbollah, Israeli cities would suffer a barrage of rockets and hundreds, if not more, Israelis would be killed.
Yet, no one, not even Bennett and company, is suggesting that Israel should go to war against Hezbollah, which is bleeding in the killing fields of Syria. The same logic must be applied to Gaza, as well. Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman