The ball is in Gaza's court

Israel’s policy is to avoid escalation with Hamas, but it will respond with great force if attacks continue.

Ready for action: IDF troops just outside the southern Gaza Strip, July 6 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Ready for action: IDF troops just outside the southern Gaza Strip, July 6
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
This is one of my hardest writing tasks – composing an analysis of the volatile situation between Israel and Gaza on Monday, and waiting to see whether the column is at all relevant when it is published on Wednesday.
With each rocket launched against southern Israel and each retaliatory strike by the Israel Air Force, the vicious circle of violence escalates by the hour, making a new war more likely than ever. Yet, one fact is clear – neither Israel nor the Islamist movement of Hamas wants a new round.
It is also evident that, so far, an extended military campaign – not to mention a prolonged war – in Gaza has been prevented temporarily. The blood-boiling, inflammatory rhetoric and nationalistic fervor of some right-wing ministers (Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu led the charge demanding harsh retaliation against Hamas) has cooled.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (backed by moderate cabinet ministers such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid) and, more importantly, the IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-General Benny Gantz (backed by the heads of the intelligence community) restrained the warmongers.
Senior figures in the defense establishment have not always exercised restraint. Israel’s history is rife with examples of trigger-happy generals, all too keen for battle, trying (and sometimes succeeding) to push the political echelon into war or military adventurism.
It happened in 1955 during Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza, which led to a military escalation, strategic changes in the Middle East (in the shape of the Czech- Egyptian weapons deal) and subsequently Israel’s venture into Sinai, known as the Suez Campaign. Another example was in mid-May 1967, in the waiting period before the Six Day War, when most of the senior general staff demanded that the government launch a preventive attack against the Egyptian army concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula. Their activities were dubbed “the rebellion of the generals.”
Then came 1991 and the first Gulf War. It was prime minister Yitzhak Shamir who put a stop to the demand by some senior military figures (led at the time by then-deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak) to intervene in the war in Iraq in retaliation for the firing of Scud missiles at Israel.
The moderation, restraint and coolheadedness being demonstrated by Netanyahu and Ya’alon in the current crisis, in the wake of the abduction and murder of three teenaged yeshiva students in June and the Palestinian riots in the West Bank in early July that have spread to some Israeli-Arab towns and villages, deserves appreciation and should not be taken for granted.
This is a government elected and supported by right-wing constituents. And, although the right demands blood, the leadership has managed to resist it. It know very well that the situation is sensitive and explosive, and could lead to an extensive confrontation with Hamas and the deterioration of relations with Egypt. They are not interested in seeing a war erupt on their watch with unpredictable consequences.
They also have a full understanding that this is not a crisis that can be solved in a brief encounter. It is clear to all that, this time, Israel cannot rely on a new version of its latest Gaza operations (Cast Lead in 2009-10 and Pillar of Defense in 2012), which led to a limited Israeli ground incursion and quick finale to the battles.
If Israel embarks on another war in Gaza, it will need (as already proposed by Liberman) to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip.
“This situation would continue for a long time,” former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Avi Dichter tells The Jerusalem Report. “I support this process, but it requires preparation, enlistment of reservists, and a constant military presence in the territory for at least a year. You don’t do that off the cuff.”
Like Hezbollah, and perhaps also under Iran's influence, Hamas – a disciplined, organized and hierarchical organization whose armed echelon answers to the political leadership – has become in recent years a viable military force. It is divided into brigades (north and south) and specialized units (rocket launchers) and contains a military command of brigade, battalion and company commanders. Above them sits a general staff, which replaced the military arm led by Ahmed Jabari who was assassinated by Israel at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense. The most prominent among this general staff are Marwan Issa and Mohammed Deif.
One of Hamas’s central goals since Operation Pillar of Defense and the cease-fire with Israel has been expanding its arsenal of rockets. In recent years, since Egypt began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels running from the Strip into Sinai, the influx of rockets has been reduced and Hamas has gone into missile production so that Gaza now has its own small-scale military industry.
“Their capabilities in this field have become quite impressive,” a senior security source familiar with the subject tells The Report. “With the help of local experts and external consultants they are succeeding in improving their rockets and increasing their arsenal.” Israel estimates that Gaza now has some 10,000 rockets, including a few dozen – if not more – capable of reaching Tel Aviv and further north.
The significance of a large-scale military campaign is simple – active occupation of the Gaza Strip, at least for the duration of the operation. Occupation of Gaza would force Israel once again to assume full responsibility in the territory – to feed the million and a half Palestinians living there and take on the administration of daily life.
A war in Gaza also could complicate ties with Egypt, with whom Israel has enjoyed a recent period of security cooperation in the mutual struggle against jihadist terror in Sinai (and Gaza).
However, despite the calls of certain political groups and ministers, as well as among a large sector of the Israeli population and media, for blood and revenge, the government and defense establishment are doing all to prevent such an outcome.
Hamas also has no interest in escalation and confrontation, according to the assessment of research analysts in Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet, as expressed in the last four security cabinet sessions held on the matter in early July. “It is clear to us that Hamas does not want escalation,” a senior defense official relates to The Report following the cabinet deliberations. “It absolutely does not want that.”
The Hamas leadership, which went underground in early July fearing Israel would resume its policy of targeted assassinations (as hinted at by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi), know that another military confrontation would mean defeat and the end of the Hamas regime.
Hamas’s current political and financial situation is bad. Egypt, under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, sees Hamas as the sister organization of its own sworn enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. An Egyptian court recently declared Hamas a terrorist organization. Despite various reports in the media, both in the Arab world and in Israel, Egypt is not trying to restrain Israel or intervene to prevent escalation. The security coordination is focused mostly on Sinai.
About two years ago, when the civil war in Syria was escalating, Hamas’s ties with its key benefactor, Iran, were cut off and the latter ceased transferring funds. Hamas’s recent efforts to reconcile with Iran have been futile. Qatar’s plans to transfer funds to Hamas also failed due to the opposition voiced by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Arab world is focused on its own troubles and the Palestinian issue has been dropped from its agenda.
Moreover, Hamas is having difficulty in imposing its authority on the renegade Salafist groups in Gaza. There are already 17 of them, including supporters of the blackuniformed terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Since the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June, 150 rockets and dozens of mortar shells have been launched at southern Israel. These rockets are being fired by rogue Salafist organizations that do not answer to Hamas. Even Islamic Jihad, which is still sponsored by Iran, has avoided launching rockets.
The security cabinet’s policy, as formulated in early July, is that Israel will try to avoid escalation with Hamas in Gaza, but would respond with great force to any attacks on its territory. The IDF will continue to prepare for every possibility – including widespread aerial strikes and a ground incursion if the attacks from Gaza continue.
In that scenario, if, unfortunately, a war breaks out, Israel’s main focus will be a vigorous effort to destroy the stockpiles of rockets and missiles, the workshops where they are being produced and the warehouses where they are being stored. The thousands of Hamas military personnel would also be targeted.
In other words, the ball is in Gaza’s court.
Meanwhile, the cabinet also decided to continue the IDF and Shin Bet operation in the West Bank against the Hamas infrastructure there. This will target not only militant-terrorist operations, but also civilian activities, which Hamas uses as a cover for covert terrorist goals.
Israel began its operation in the West Bank immediately after it learned of the abductions of the Israeli teens in mid-June.
The mission was threefold: collecting intelligence information to find the teens or their bodies; arresting the perpetrators (a manhunt still underway); and wiping out the Hamas presence in the West Bank.
According to defense establishment assessments, the Hamas efforts to carry out terrorist attacks, in general, and to abduct Israelis, in particular, are initiated and directed by four elements – the West Bank leadership, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and the Hamas commands in Qatar and Turkey under the leadership of Salah Saruri, who served time in administrative detention in Israel and was released in 2012.
Israel’s intelligence assessment is that Hamas has succeeded in increasing its capabilities in the West Bank, partly thanks to the Islamist movement’s reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, which began a few months ago and led to the formation of a national unity government (whose future in the wake of the kidnapping is currently unclear).
According to data compiled by the Shin Bet, 187 serious terrorist attempts (bombs, shootings and abductions) were thwarted in the West Bank over the course of 2013. Of these, 84 were planned by Hamas, including 28 attempts to abduct Israelis to be used to negotiate for prisoner releases. So far in 2014, Israel has foiled 96 terror attempts, about half of which were planned by Hamas.
During the course of the open-ended operation against Hamas in the West Bank, some 500 people have been arrested so far, most of them members or supporters of the organization. A few dozen are former prisoners released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal when Israel released 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and criminals in exchange for one soldier.
In the West Bank campaign, Israel has put a special focus on the dawa, the Hamas civilian social and welfare activities. As part of those efforts, Israel has shut down sports clubs, student organizations, community centers, cultural centers, and other civil institutions used by Hamas to tighten its hold on the West Bank and to win over residents in order to gain political support.
In addition, bank accounts have been frozen and about 1.5 million shekels ($400,000) have been confiscated. It’s fairly clear that the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas are shedding no tears over Israel’s activities.
The volatile situation has been further complicated by the brutal murder of a 17- year- old Palestinian, apparently by Jewish vigilantes in revenge for the murder of the three Israeli students. In response, young Palestinians in Jerusalem and other cities in the West Bank embarked on a wave of violent protest against Israeli security forces.
But at the end of the day, Israel’s actions – the punishment for the kidnapping, the desire to make Hamas pay a price for its deeds and deter further attacks – are mere tactics. Even those who support an extended operation or all-out war know that Hamas, an organization with roots, ideology and wide public support, won’t easily be extracted from the hearts of Palestinians.
Israel’s strategic problem is that although there is wide agreement among the military and political echelons to operate with as great a force as possible in the West Bank, there is no parallel action to help it reach the compromises necessary to advance a serious peace process with the PA.
As such, Israel is likely to find itself up against a new challenge and a new enemy – jihadists like ISIS and al-Qaida, who will find a way to fill the void created by a weak Palestinian Authority and a worn-down and beaten Hamas.