Israeli deterrence in a new Middle East

Although the security situation is fragile, Israel has made dramatic strides.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
WITH THE beginning of a new Jewish year, Israel’s strategic position has improved dramatically, an indication that Israeli deterrence is working on all fronts and is disrupting its enemies’ war doctrines. This is the bottom line presented in recent weeks by military intelligence’s top echelon to the cabinet.
Israel faces security challenges of various levels on six fronts: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and Egypt.
The two borders with Egypt and Jordan that benefit from the long-standing peace agreements are quiet with the security, military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt at its peak.
The situation in the West Bank is fragile but manageable. For 50 years, some 2.5 million Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation in the shadow of the construction of more Jewish settlements. Their daily life is controlled by the bureaucratic whims of the Israeli army with roadblocks everywhere.
And yet, they are largely submissive and accept this reality with the occasional burst of violence and terrorism.
Two years ago, there was a spontaneous effort by young Palestinians to ignite a new – third – uprising (intifada). It has been characterized largely by young Palestinians, sometimes teenagers, with no organizational affiliation, using knives and cars as their weapons of choice. But a strong response by the Israeli military combined with effective intelligence and monitoring of social media subdued most of the efforts to carry out terrorist attacks.
What also contributed to Israeli success was a smart policy, advised by the security establishment and accepted by the government to allow nearly 100,000 Palestinian workers to continue working in Israel. In other words, Israel succeeded in fighting the violence by isolating the perpetrators from the rest of the population with minimal “collective punishment.”
Although the right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu stubbornly refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority about a respectable and fair deal, the PA security services still cooperate with their Israeli counterparts and, together, thwart terrorist plans made mainly by their joint enemy – Hamas.
For the last 10 years, the Islamic movement Hamas, which is an extension of the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has ruled Gaza. Hamas, which came to power after a military coup d’état that toppled the PA government, doesn’t recognize the right of Israel to exist, has armed itself and has already triggered three wars.
Three times the IDF invaded Gaza, a small enclave of 365 square kilometers with 2 million Palestinian inhabitants – one of the most densely populated and poor areas in the world. Three times the invasions have wreaked havoc, causing heavy damage to the limited infrastructure, killing thousands of civilians and injuring many more. Each invasion dealt a heavy blow to the military strength of Hamas but the group somehow managed to rebuild ‒ usually at the expense of the population’s basic needs of water, electricity and food.
Hamas, aware of its military inferiority, developed a strategy with three tactical tools to challenge the mighty Israeli military machine.
Its first move was to amass a large arsenal of thousands rockets that were launched against Israeli cities and villages. The second tool was to build underground tunnels penetrating into Israel and use them for surprise attacks against military positions and rural communities. The third tool has been finding cover among civilians who serve Hamas as “human shields” in military confrontations.
In these three campaigns (2008-2009, 2012 and 2014), Israeli communities and cities, including Tel Aviv, were shelled, as Hamas aimed to create an effect of psychological terror on the population. Hamas fighters surfaced inside Israeli territories and also caused casualties among the invading IDF troops.
After each round, the Israeli government was strongly condemned by the international community. Yet, the Israeli will was not broken.
Rather, it is Hamas that has found itself in a shaky situation.
After the last war, Hamas ended up isolated as never before as the Israeli-Egyptian- Palestinian alliance eroded its status.
The three parties increased their pressure on Hamas. Egypt accused Hamas of colluding with ISIS in Sinai and stepped up its battle against Hamas tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. Dozens of tunnels were bulldozed and destroyed, cutting off the Islamic movement from its economic lifeline because the tunnels served not only to smuggle in weapons but also goods that were then taxed.
The siege of Hamas by Egypt, Israel and the PA has resulted in their reduction of regular payments to the Gaza administration, especially for covering the cost of electricity.
This has widened the wedge between Hamas and the rest of the population, who have finally begun to blame their misery on the Hamas government.
On the military front, Hamas is also in dire straits. The blockade of the tunnels deprives Hamas of its capacity to smuggle in better rockets from Sinai and forces it to rely on local industry, which is suffering from a shortage of essential components to produce improved, longer range and more accurate rockets.
Furthermore, Hamas has realized that Israel is developing powerful countermeasures that undermine two of its best military tools.
The first, which already has proven itself in battle, is Israeli’s anti-missile system ‒ especially the Iron Dome, which has intercepted and “killed” many Hamas rockets in mid-air, thus lowering its success rate in killing Israelis and causing damage to property. The second significant anti-Hamas measure is the deep, underground wall made of heavy concrete and sensors for target detection that Israel is constructing along the 65 km border with Gaza. Once completed in 2019, it will make it difficult for Hamas to dig more tunnels inside Israel.
All these developments – the economic- humanitarian crisis, diplomatic isolation, and military inferiority – have forced Hamas to change its military doctrine and diplomatic orientation. The biggest surprise – its acknowledgement of the necessity to be realistic – comes from a new leadership that was considered to be extremely militant.
Hamas’s top military and political echelon led by Yahya Sinwar consists mainly of activists who have served long sentences in Israeli jails because of their terrorist involvement.
Yet Hamas has shown a great deal of pragmatism in trying to reconcile with its arch rival, the PA; improving relations with Egypt; disconnecting from Iran (though it still gets an annual infusion of $70 million for its military wing); and most importantly, reducing the digging of tunnels inside Israel, and excavating more bunkers and tunnels for defensive purposes in Gaza.
It also means, as Israeli intelligence estimates, that Hamas is being deterred and as a result is not interested in a new round of fighting.
This assessment is enforced by the recent reconciliation agreement between the PA and Hamas. The deal avoids the issue of disarming Hamas as an independent militia, but by reinstating PA civilian authority in Gaza it diminishes the ability of Hamas to make independent decisions.
IN THE north, according to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah, like Hamas, has changed its war doctrine because of Israeli deterrence and superiority.
Until recently, Hezbollah believed that with its 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting any target in Israel, the longer the next war would be, the better. Now, however, Israel’s intelligence assessment is that the Shi’ite Lebanese movement has reversed its doctrine, preferring and preparing for a short campaign because Israel has made it clear that, unlike in the 2006 war, it no longer distinguishes between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army and government. To Israel, they are one and the same and, in the next war, will be targeted equally.
Realizing that Israel has improved its intelligence and fire power, Hezbollah now understands that prolonging a war would be counterproductive and enable Israel to cause unprecedented damage to Lebanon, as Israeli military and political leaders talk about “pushing Lebanon back into the Stone Age.”
Another important contributor to this change is the fact that despite Iranian efforts to help its Lebanese protégé, Hezbollah has only a few hundred missiles with a range of 300 kilometers or more and they are inaccurate ‒ if such a missile were to be launched against Israel’s Defense Ministry and IDF General Staff Headquarters in central Tel Aviv, it could very well just fall into the sea.
Nevertheless, Israel doesn’t underestimate Hezbollah capabilities. It’s a strong military force of 45,000 troops, half of them conscripts. And, despite its heavy losses in the civil war in Syria ‒ 2,000 of its warriors killed and 8,000 wounded ‒ it gained a great deal of battle experience in large troop maneuvering.
Hezbollah is therefore no longer a terrorist group but a professional army.
Taking advantage of their contribution to saving the Assad regime in Syria (together with Russia), Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor are trying to gain a foothold near the Israeli border, but Israeli leaders have declared that they will not tolerate any Iranian or Shi’ite presence close to the Golan Heights.
It seems that here, too, Israeli deterrence is working, and neither Hezbollah nor Iranian troops no longer dare to take up positions close to the Israeli border. However, Israeli intelligence assessments emphasize that, despite the current tranquility, the risk of an unexpected confrontation in one or two arenas – Gaza and/or Lebanon – is still relatively high.
“The situation is fragile,” a senior military officer told me, “and any minor incident can get out of hand.”
All parties involved don’t want another round of violence, so war is not on the horizon; still the danger remains that a miscalculation by one or the other could trigger a slide into an unwanted confrontation.