Despite pats on the back, Gaza operation raises some questions - opinion

Why did Hamas, which enjoyed significant concessions, not impose its will on Islamic Jihad? How did it manage to fire rockets at such high rates? And why wasn't the cabinet kept in the loop?

Israeli bombing in Khan Yunis (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH 90)
Israeli bombing in Khan Yunis
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH 90)

The strategic ambush – that Palestinian Islamic Jihad set against Israel in response to the relatively insignificant pretext of the arrest of the organization's senior official in the West Bank, Bassam al-Saadi – failed miserably, and Israel faced the challenge with great success both militarily and politically.

The demonstration of initiative, the taking of calculated risks by the political echelon and the choice to be the first party to carry out an offensive action have the potential to influence the strengthening of Israel's deterrence against enemies who are significantly stronger than Islamic Jihad – and if the Jewish state continues to consistently act like this in the Gaza Strip and in the face of additional threats.

The successful operation can be attributed to precise and elegant execution, quality intelligence and a strong defense that reduced achievements by the enemy, as demonstrated by the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in the last operation. The deception that worked, the complacency on the other side and the well-timed opening blow put the IDF on the right foot in the fighting.

All of these made it possible to entrench the achievements, as the elimination of the commander of the southern sector of Islamic Jihad damaged the organization's capabilities, took it off balance and was a consideration in their pursuit of a quick ceasefire. A successful defense effort in the Gaza Division and avoiding mistakes along the border also helped in achieving the army's objectives, while denying the other side an achievement of public opinion.

Also in this operation, the hunting down of rocket firing squads and the chain that sustains them while fighting has been checked off by the IDF in the "lesson learned" section that needs to be improved, especially in light of the last day of fighting when high numbers of rockets were fired towards Israel.

 Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022.  (credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The IDF believes that in this area, success rates higher than in the last round should be achieved, regardless of the impressive performance of the Iron Dome, which managed to intercept a very high percentage of the rockets.

Admittedly, the IDF's challenges are against much stronger enemies and in situations where a military escalation is imposed on Israel by surprise, without intelligence that would allow an orderly and well-prepared plan to be implemented.

But even in a limited and smaller operation, it is likely that some of the capabilities demonstrated by the IDF from the air, at the level of intelligence and in reaching a quick operational achievement, will not leave even bigger foes indifferent.

Breaking Dawn success

Operation Breaking Dawn was one of the most successful, effective and accurate escalation rounds by Israel and the IDF in recent years against Gaza.

The satisfaction of the operation is justified for many reasons and there are many positive points, but at the same time, one should also be careful not to give too much importance to the operation's achievements or its strategic impact on the region.

Modesty is called for, and this is not only because Islamic Jihad is a weak enemy or because over 1,000 rockets were fired at Israel, but mainly because the situation vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip and the potential impact of the operation have still not fundamentally changed.

Those looking for examples can examine Operation Black Belt in November 2019, during which Israel also initiated a surprise attack with the elimination of the commander of the northern sector of Islamic Jihad, Baha Abu al-Ata.

Even then, the initiative was in Israel's hands, Hamas was left out and there was no doubt that the IDF had the upper hand, but brigade and senior commanders come and go at a rapid pace in the Gaza Strip.

The assassination of Abu al-Ata had, with the passage of time, shown a far less dramatic effect than the one presented by the defense establishment regarding Islamic Jihad's military capabilities and its desire at the time to fight Israel in the future.

The elimination of senior officials certainly has meaning, especially when it comes to a small and less organized organization than Hamas.

In the last operation, the military's ability to eliminate northern sector commander Taysir Jabari and southern sector commander Khaled Mansour had an effect not only on the entrenchment of the achievement but also on the operational functionality of Islamic Jihad on the ground during the operation.

Both assassinations will require the organization to rebuild and restore, even though it lasted only a few days. This is an operational achievement and it has value, but its efficiency output, as history shows, has an expiration date in terms of deterrence and an operational point of view regarding Islamic Jihad's operational capabilities for the coming years.

An unsolved mystery

The top army echelon believes that in the reality after Operation Breaking Dawn, there is a greater potential to influence and restrain Islamic Jihad than in the days after Black Belt in 2019, and the organization is expected to be more disciplined to the directives of Hamas, which seeks to maintain peace in the Strip. Hence, apparently, the potential for peace for a longer period is now higher.

Islamic Jihad understands that it is unable to produce operational achievements against Israel without the cooperation of Hamas.

This is accompanied by a low sense of self-confidence in its operational abilities following the Israeli intelligence-gathering that made it possible to eliminate its senior officials – in addition to the fact that over 200 of its own rockets exploded in the Gaza Strip, killing about 11 civilians according to the IDF's estimates, and the lack of any real achievement against Israeli forces on the Gaza border or in killing Israelis during the rocket barrages against the Jewish state.

These reasons strengthen the position of the security establishment after the operation, but in this matter, as always, only time will tell.

In recent years, after operations in Gaza, the estimates regarding long periods of silence were usually broken, and the expected time period was shortened, so one should not be surprised if this happens here as well.

The desire of Islamic Jihad to carry out a severe anti-tank missile attack that could have cost the lives of many civilians remains an unsolved puzzle even now. The current leading position in the security establishment is that the decision was made spontaneously by the leader of Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nahalka, while he was in Iran, and he was the one who pushed to carry out the attack.

Despite the funding and the backing of the regime in Tehran, the security establishment at this stage ruled out any direction or order from Iran to carry out the attack, and believes that this is a completely independent private whim of Nahalka.

He did not anticipate the ability of Israeli intelligence to identify the planning of the attack and the ability of the IDF to launch a surprise preliminary strike that completely disrupted Islamic Jihad's plans.

Whether they wanted the terrorist organization to influence Israel's freedom of action in its activities in Judea and Samaria, or whether they were interested in dragging the region and Hamas into another significant confrontation in the south with Israel, Islamic Jihad's excessive fantasies were quickly cut short.

Contributing factors to this were an elegant termination mechanism mediated by Egypt, rapid military achievements by the IDF, minimizing possible mistakes in air force attacks, and of course, the fact that Hamas remained on the fence and did not enter the fray.

Islamic Jihad shows, time and time again, low operational capability and command and control problems – and most of all, holes in counter-intelligence that allow Israel to reach achievements in harming the organization's leaders. In a way this is significantly more effective than fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Between policy and execution

One of the important points of the last operation, which also happened in Operation Black Belt, was that Hamas remained out of the conflict. This left Islamic Jihad alone on the front, and the IDF made good use of this advantage in the field, after Israel took several actions on the political and military level to reduce the potential for an escalation in the operation and the entry of Hamas into combat.

But the glass can also be viewed as half-empty. Only a year and three months after Guardian of the Walls, which was assessed by the security establishment as leading to a long period of quiet for several years, a significant escalation took place.

It is true that this time the initiative was on the Israeli side, but the expectation from Hamas to control the territory and curb the other terrorist organizations was misguided.

Since Guardian of the Walls, Israel has pursued an expanding economic policy toward Gaza, with unprecedented civilian relief and bringing thousands of workers to Israel.

The political and military elite attach great importance to the improvement of the economic situation in the Gaza Strip for maintaining stability in the South over time, in laying the foundations for longer periods of peace in the future, and perhaps even to progress in solving the issue of prisoners and missing persons – which will allow Israel to further expand its efforts to develop the coastal enclave economically.

Between policy and execution, when a political settlement is not in sight – and Israel is not interested in taking part in a military campaign to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza – Israel wants to maintain security stability vis-à-vis the Strip. Proper political conduct is logical in the face of a complicated and complex reality, but it also has its price.

At the end of Guardian of the Walls and the concessions Hamas received, the group ruling Gaza is required not only to impose internal discipline but also to enforce its will on the other terrorist organizations in the Strip.

This conception did not stand up to the test of reality when, as in previous cases, Hamas admittedly remained out of the conflict (for which is expected to gain points with the Egyptians), but in a kind of familiar Middle Eastern double game, it remained on the fence and did not intervene in to stop Islamic Jihad from escalating the situation.

The claim of governmental responsibility that Israel demands from Hamas as justification to attack its targets on "quiet" days when it is not being actively aggressive – but after rocket fire carried out by another terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip that it should be able to control – was put on the side this time due to other understandable considerations. And as previously mentioned, Israel made great efforts to keep Hamas out of the fighting.

Precise hit, return to normal

The Air Force's careful execution, incredible precision and impressive performance in hitting Taysir Jabari's apartment hideout in a 14-story building illustrate this well. The rapid opening of the Gaza border crossings and entry and exit into Israel also emphasize our desire to return to a normal state.

Along with the benefits that have come to light as a result of the current operation to isolate Islamic Jihad, the issue of Hamas and Israel's policy toward it requires deeper consideration on its own.

Even in the days leading up to the latest escalation, Hamas was not required to make a significant payment in exchange for the concessions it receives and the workers who enter Israel – all while there was no progress on the issue of the captives and the missing, which in the past was a condition for progress as far as Israel was concerned.

It is likely that the price that Hamas paid for Guardian of the Walls strengthened its reluctance to enter into another conflict with Israel, meaning that cost-effectiveness considerations guided it. But at the same time, the terrorist group ruling the Strip used the calm of last year to continue military strengthening and preparations for the next conflict.

As far as Hamas is concerned, this round of escalation was a private problem for Islamic Jihad. Hamas did not want it, but neither did it act to stop it. The only actual demand of Israel and Egypt from Hamas in exchange for concessions was long-term silence, but in reality, this conception quickly collapsed. The fact that it did not actually enter combat in this operation should be seen as only a partial success.

Where is the cabinet?

The interface between the political and security echelons in the decision to initiate a preemptive strike that would thwart an attack was conducted in a limited manner since the members of the political-security cabinet were not privy to the affairs. After the arrest of Bassem al-Saadi and the actual warning of an attack by Islamic Jihad, the Southern Command took significant defensive measures, while plans were simultaneously being prepared to counter the attack offensively.

When Egyptian attempts to mediate between the parties failed, the IDF proposed three steps of action while thwarting the attack and conducting a broader military operation against Islamic Jihad, estimating that this could be done in a short time without Hamas entering the conflict.

The army supported the third and most severe step, which came with a high risk of significant escalation. The prime minister and the defense minister accepted this recommendation, and in an operation that was prepared in advance by the Southern Command called “Black Sash” aimed at a limited operation only against Islamic Jihad, the necessary adjustments were made to thwart an anti-tank attack and the IDF waited for an hour of operational readiness.

Although it was clear that there was a reasonable chance that the situation could deteriorate to the point of a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, as this unfolded during an election period, the cabinet was not privy to the matter. At the political level, the decision is explained by the need to maintain the level of compartmentalization and confidentiality required for the implementation of the plan – and this is a conclusion that should not be accepted.

This way of thinking is somewhat contrary to the system of government in Israel, where security decisions that may lead to war must go through the approval of the cabinet. The prime and defense ministers, despite their status, are not the direct commanders of the army – the government is, through the cabinet.

In September 2019, just a week before another never-ending round of elections were to take place, Amos Harel reported in Haaretz that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed away from an unusual military response that could have led to an escalation. This happened after a barrage of rockets was fired at Ashdod during his election conference in the city. The security echelon expressed opposition to the military move a week before the elections, and the attorney-general at the time, Avichai Mandeblit, demanded that Netanyahu convene the cabinet before the decision was made.

It is likely that it was the resistance of the security establishment that led to the involvement of the ombudsman, who reminded Netanyahu that in Israel, such decisions are not made by one person – and Netanyahu eventually backed down from his position. In this case, it may be under slightly different circumstances, and not on the eve of the elections themselves – but on the level of principle, there should not be a difference.

Beyond the legal obligation to convene the cabinet, its participants have many times in the past been able to provide additional angles and help make decisions when there is a debate at the top political-security level or even when agreements are made. The claim that updating the cabinet might have harmed the secrecy of the operation is troubling.

Even when the army and the other security agencies saw eye to eye on the decisions of the current operation, at the very least, updating the cabinet is a necessary step when there is a chance that the military response may lead to a large-scale military operation in the South. This is the method used in Israel. Even when an operation is concluded successfully, it is appropriate to dwell on this issue – so regarding this, Operation Breaking Dawn was not conducted normally.