Analysis: Until the next round

Israel and Islamic Jihad reached a tenuous cease-fire; both sides know it won't last too long.

IDF soldiers walking to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead 311R (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
IDF soldiers walking to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead 311R
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Israel and Islamic Jihad reached a tenuous cease-fire on Tuesday, which both sides know will likely not last longer than a few months.
In a week or so, Palestinian terror groups will again begin firing rockets sporadically into Israel and the IDF will respond with the bombing of tunnels and so-called terror targets.
This is because, ultimately when it comes to Gaza, the IDF does not believe that there is a clear military solution unless Israel wants to re-conquer the Strip, establish a military presence there and go door-to-door hunting down terrorists.
The price in such a case would be far too high for what Israel is willing to pay.
That is why the IDF restrained itself during the recent round of hostilities and only bombed 37 targets from the air throughout the four days. In comparison, on the first day of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, the Air Force attacked 100 targets in just a matter of minutes.
Instead, what we are facing are short rounds of violence like in April, August, October and now this week, followed by a period of quiet. Another round, another period of quiet.
For Israel, the goal of this round was two-fold. On one hand, Israel wanted to damage Islamic Jihad in order to boost its deterrence and hopefully postpone the next round for longer than before.
The second objective was to see firsthand what Islamic Jihad is capable of doing. After four days of fighting and the firing of over 300 rockets, the IDF is impressed.
Islamic Jihad has made an impressive leap in its capabilities and military infrastructure over the past two years, made possible due to an Iranian decision to divert funds traditionally allocated to Hamas to Islamic Jihad instead.
Unlike Hamas, which has warmed up in recent months to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamic Jihad is a terror group that is solely supported by Iran, financially and militarily.
“It was definitely an impressive show of force,” a senior IDF intelligence officer said this week in reference to Islamic Jihad’s rocket fire.
The power shift in the Gaza Strip can be traced back to the months after Operation Cast Lead in 2009 when Hamas decided to suspend military operations against Israel. Islamic Jihad did not agree with the decision and decided to build up more advanced capabilities so it could attack Israel independently and with greater force.
The sophisticated Nasr-1 radar-guided anti-ship missile discovered aboard the Victoria cargo ship seized by Israel last March was intended for Islamic Jihad, and there are some assessments within Israel that the group’s longrange rocket arsenal competes in size to Hamas’s.
This situation has put Hamas in a difficult position since it might be losing the “resistance” card – the core purpose of its existence to the Islamic Jihad. This could lead Gazans to question why they then need Hamas at all.
On the other hand, part of Israel’s decision not to expand its bombings was to try and prevent Hamas from entering the fray. Had that happened, Israel would have needed to retaliate against Hamas and then the way to a large-scale ground offensive turns into a slippery slope.
Israel’s main concern in such a case would have been to what extent it should weaken Hamas. Considering Islamic Jihad’s rise and the growing prominence of global jihad-affiliated groups in Gaza, Israel would be facing a situation where significantly weakening Hamas could result in it facing a more dangerous and radical enemy in the future.
“It is hard to talk about Hamas in terms of being moderate in Gaza but in comparison to Islamic Jihad and some of the other terror groups there it simply is,” a senior IDF officer explained recently.
This has less to do with ideology but more with the fact that as the ruler over Gaza, in addition to the objective of attacking Israel, Hamas has other responsibilities such as caring for education, welfare and transportation.
These responsibilities serve as something of a restraint over Hamas but not over Islamic Jihad, which is more difficult to deter.