Gaza fighting resumes, what happens now?
Aug 22, 2014
August 22, 2014
Number 08/14 #05
With Gaza fighting resuming on Tuesday when Hamas fired rockets after 8 days of agreed ceasefires, this Update is devoted to where matters might go from here.
First up is Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner, who outlines 4 different scenarios about how this round of conflict might proceed and end. Among them are a ceasefire without negotiations, resumption of negotiations and a ceasefire, a renewed campaign of Israeli bombing and other military pressure and an escalation by Israel into a large-scale ground attack. He also suggests that, despite slogans about no winners from war, this conflict looks likely to go on until one side or the other decided that it must modify the conditions it wants because the price has become too high. For the details and estimated probabilities of all of Rosner’s scenarios, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, looking in more detail at why Hamas decided to resume firing is David Horovitz of the Times of Israel and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary.
Next up is Palestinian Affairs correspondent Avi Isscharoff analysing the implications and consequences of Israel’s successful targeted strike on three senior Hamas commanders on Wednesday, Ra’ad Atar, Muhammad Abu Shamalah and Muhammed Barhoum, as well as an earlier attack on Hamas’ most senior military commander, Muhammad Deif, whose outcome is unclear. Issacharoff says the attacks were a major coup for Israeli intelligence, and a serious blow to Hamas military command structures, but they will drive Hamas to seek to carry out attacks in revenge and to show it is not beaten. He also notes that the elimination of such senior military commanders will likely strengthen the hand of Hamas’ political leadership in terms of its reported disagreements with the military wing over the timing and conditions for a ceasefire. For Issacharoff’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. Another good piece on the significance of the targeted killings comes from Israeli security reporter Ron Ben Yishai. Meanwhile, Hamas is reportedly executing alleged “collaborators” in response to the intelligence failure.
Finally, Michael Eisenstadt and Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have picked the brains of some of Washington’s best and brightest for creative ideas for a ceasefire that will end the Hamas rocket threat once and for all. They report the results of a closed-door symposium of “former U.S. and foreign officials, rocket specialists, and a former UN weapons inspector” to consider ideas for implementing the proposed ceasefire formula of “reconstruction for demilitarization” successfully. The piece offers many original provisions the international community could put in place to make this work, and also usefully discusses the relevant technical issues related to Hamas’ rocket smuggling and construction. For what the experts consulted came up with, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A report that Qatar effectively sabotaged the recent Gaza ceasefire talks in Cairo by threatening to expel Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal if he agreed to a ceasefire deal.
- More on Qatar’s increasingly destructive role in Gaza and across the Middle East is here, here and here. Plus some analysis of the extent to which reporters from the Qatar-owned TV network Al-Jazeera revealed themselves as in the tank for Hamas throughout this war here.
- Veteran Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled abu Toameh says a key reason the Cairo talks failed was because Hamas’ principal demand was that Egypt open its border with Gaza, and Cairo was not willing to do this.
- David Pollack of the Washington Institute offers a reality check on claims about how many civilians have been killed in Gaza. Plus, his colleague, military expert Jeffrey White, discusses six ways Hamas could have significantly reduced those casualties if it had wanted to.
- Honest Reporting lists five major media mistakes which have marred coverage of the Gaza conflict. Plus, Elliot Abrams notes that much of the media again reported the end of this ceasefire as if it broke itself.
- Israel has reportedly uncovered an alleged major Hamas plot, organised from Turkey, to launch terror from the West Bank, cause unrest, and then overthrow the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. And a Hamas leader in Turkey admits Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June.
- Isi Leibler writes to urge American Jewish leaders to be more vocal in their criticism of the US Administration’s approach to Israel and the Middle East in general.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
Jewish Journal, Aug. 20
I don’t know what happens next. There is no way of knowing what happens next. We don’t even know exactly what happened two days ago, when the Cairo talks seemed close to reaching an agreement; or yesterday, when someone decided to fire rockets at Israel; or this morning, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas arch-terrorist Muhammad Deif. But by and large, there are four possible options for what happens next – that is, in the coming 2-3 days:
Option 1: cease fire without negotiations. Likelihood: fairly small.
It is not impossible that Israel and Hamas will find a way to promptly move back to a situation of a de facto cease fire. For this to happen, there needs to be pressure on Hamas to halt rocket firing, and acceptance by Israel of an end to its currently open-ended operation. Curiously, for Israel, this might be a better solution to the crisis than having to renegotiate with Hamas – a move that is now recognized as a mistake by many senior Israelis (Minister Tzipi Livni is one example). The problem with getting to such an ending is threefold: One – because it would mean that there is no agreement and hostilities can resume at any given time. Two – because it would mean that both sides ended the operation with few tangible achievements to show for. Three – pressure on Hamas is needed, but there are no candidates that are both capable and willing to put that pressure on Hamas.
Option 2: cease fire with negotiations. Likelihood: small.
Negotiating with Hamas is out of fashion with the Israeli public and with its leaders. Yet circumstances can still force Israel into more rounds of negotiations (the Israeli government’s ability to compromise, though, is lower today than it was yesterday). If there is pressure from the world community, and especially from Cairo, Israel might still have to give the talks another chance. The likelihood of this happenning now is small, because all involved participants understand that even if negotiations resume, they are not likely to end successfully.
Option 3: limited Israeli counter attack. Likelihood: high.
Israel did not want to occupy Gaza a month ago, and it doesn’t want to occupy Gaza now. The cost will be high, in Israeli blood, Palestinian blood (much higher), and intensifying international pressures. So it is tempting for Israel to first try something less sweeping: a combination of bombings, targeted assassinations, some ground forces maneuvering, and other (possibly civilian) means of pressure. The problem with getting to such an ending is threefold: One – politically speaking, it will be tricky for Prime Minister Netanyahu to convince his ministers to give yet another chance to a limited approach. Two – it was tried and failed, so why try the same solution again? Three – this is what Hamas wants, to be able to keep firing rockets as Israel kills Gazans, many of them non-combatants.
Option 4: large scale ground operation. Likelihood: fairly high.
Judging by opinion polls and by other means, this is what the Israeli public expects. And politicians in a democracy eventually have to do what the public wants them to do. It is also becoming suspiciously possible that Hamas acts the way it does because it doesn’t believe that the threat of a large scale Israeli invasion is serious – meaning that Israel’s deterrence was weakened, not strengthened, in the last couple of weeks. On the other hand, as I already mentioned, the large scale operation has many downsides: high cost in blood, budget, international support, but also the lack of a clear and practical ‘day after’ plan. If Israel invades Gaza and defeats Hamas and kills all the Hamas leaders – what then?
Bottom line: short cuts do not work.
A while ago, I wrote an article about the Middle East peace process in which I was trying to analyze why Secretary of State John Kerry failed to achieve an agreement.
[F]ailure is in the eye of the beholder. And in this case only those who expected a deal — the Americans — failed. They failed to reach their goal, and failed to understand that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have other goals in mind (or, more likely, they understood yet failed to draw the proper conclusions). But for the two parties with real interests at stake, the talks were a success. They succeeded in proving, once again, that there are things more important for them than peace and calm — things like national pride, sacred traditions, symbols and land.
This lesson applies to the failure to get to a cease-fire in the last two weeks. While we are all currently accustomed to saying that in conflicts such as this one there can be no clear winner and clear loser, and that the outcome is always murky – reality teaches us that with no winner there is no conclusion, and with no conclusion there is no calming of hostilities. Israel wants calm – if its conditions are met. Hamas wants calm – if its conditions are met. The conditions of the two parties are not compatible enough to both be accommodated. One party has to first get to a stage in which it feels that its conditions have to be moderated or else the price it pays will become too high. That, obviously, and unfortunately for the many people who are going to pay dearly for the ongoing tension, has not happened yet.
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Assassinations of Muhammad Deif’s founding colleagues in the Hamas military wing show Gaza’s terrorist regime penetrated by Israeli intelligence
Hamas has suffered a fair number of blows since the start of the conflict with Israel. Hundreds of gunmen from its military wing have been killed, many of its tunnels have been destroyed, and its rocket stores have been depleted. But the overnight strike on a home in the Tel al-Sultan district of Rafah was the harshest blow – militarily and in terms of morale – that it has sustained since the start of Operation Protective Edge.
Three of its most senior commanders in the southern area of the Strip were assassinated in the Israeli airstrike, in an operation that, for the first time, demonstrated that Hamas has been penetrated by Israeli intelligence, enabling the targeting of its most senior command echelons.
This was not just another strike, not just another assassination. The killing of the three constituted an indication that something in the intelligence discipline at the very top of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades has cracked.
The Shin Bet, as the intelligence behind the strike, and the IDF, as the operational arm, targeted the trio in a building in a crowded Rafah neighborhood on one of the heaviest days of fighting thus far. Thus this was a very different strike from the one at the start of the Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 when the Hamas military commander, Ahmed Jabari, was assassinated in a surprise attack that marked the beginning of that operation. Given that the fighting had re-escalated since Tuesday, and that Israel was known to be trying to hit the Hamas military leadership, the three had taken every possible precaution to evade Israeli intelligence. Those precautions simply were not good enough.
It can be assumed that whether or not Muhammad Deif is still alive, those members of the Hamas military leadership who have survived are now desperately trying to figure out what went wrong. How could it be that after long weeks in which Israel was unable to get to any of the heads of the military wing, now, within 48 hours, the Shin Bet located one of Deif’s hideouts and killed three other members of the Hamas general staff?
It should be stressed again: Two of the three were not mere senior commanders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Muhammad Abu Shamala, the “head of the southern command” and Raed al-Attar, the commander of the Rafah area, were part of the founding generation of the Hamas military wing — along with Deif and several others who are no longer with us, including Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh and Emad Akel. They were among Deif’s closest brothers-in-arms — long-term veterans with experience and knowledge that cannot be easily replaced.
Abu Shamala and al-Attar are tied to almost every major attack in and from the Rafah area since 2001. These include the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on a tunnel raid into Israel in which two other soldiers were killed, and even the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers on the Gaza-Sinai-Israel border two years ago. Thus the two had tangled not only with Israel, but also with Egypt, which knew of their ties to terrorist organizations in the Sinai.
The elimination of the three leaves a big hole in the Hamas command structure in southern Gaza. They will be replaced, but not with people of similar stature.
Their colleagues in the military leadership — Marwan Issa, Muhammad Sinwar, and whatever may remain of Deif — will try to return to business as usual as soon as possible given the pressure under which Hamas now finds itself. That is to say Hamas will make every effort, every desperate effort, to carry out attacks — and that includes in the West Bank and in Israel.
In the next few days, Hamas will try to use every military means at its disposal: the rockets it has saved for a “moment of truth,” any of its cross-border attack tunnels that may remain, West Bank suicide bombers — anything to prove to Israel that Hamas has not been defeated and is still standing.
The indirect negotiations on a long-term ceasefire are thus unlikely to resume in the next few days, and an end to the conflict is nowhere on the horizon. Hamas will not want to come to talks in Cairo or anywhere else from a position of weakness, and will seek first of all to avenge the assassinations.
The elimination of the three and the attempt to kill Deif — whose fate is still unclear — paves the way for a return of the Hamas political leadership, in Gaza and overseas, to a more central role. People like Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh, who needed authorization from Deif, al-Attar and Abu Shamala for every move, will now take a more central role in the leadership of the campaign against Israel, with fewer competitors. If Deif has been neutralized, there are no sufficiently senior figures in the military wing to contradict the orders of Haniyeh or Mashaal.
And ultimately the Hamas political leadership will have to decide how long to continue a conflict that is bringing destruction and devastation on Gaza and endangering Hamas’s survival. It will have to determine whether and when the time has come to end the fire, even at the cost of a blow to Hamas’s public standing.
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August 21, 2014
In launching the most recent wave of rockets into Israel, some Hamas leaders have promised never to return to Egypt-mediated ceasefire talks. But “never” is a long time in the Middle East, and it still makes sense to lay the groundwork now for the components of an enduring ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. High on the list of priorities are measures to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from replenishing their rocket arsenals. Toward that end, The Washington Institute recently convened a closed-door gathering of former U.S. and foreign officials, rocket specialists, and a former UN weapons inspector. The group explored ways to deal with the rocket problem in Gaza and examined how the concept of “reconstruction for demilitarization” might be implemented as part of a long-term ceasefire agreement. The following is a summary of their main findings. Note that some of the figures cited below may have changed in light of the fighting that has occurred since the latest ceasefire collapsed.
Since 2001, the Gaza rocket problem has only worsened; more than 18,000 have been fired at Israel over the past several years, and their range has increased from just a few kilometers to more than 160. Rocket and mortar fire has become a strategic tool for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committees (henceforth “Hamas et al.”). By precipitating numerous clashes and contributing to three large-scale military confrontations since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, such fire has enabled these groups to exercise a veto within the Palestinian arena and vis-a-vis Israel. The repeated salvoes also disrupt life in much of Israel and hold the potential to trigger even greater conflicts. And while Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has a 90 percent interception rate, some rockets still get through.
Constraining the ability of Hamas et al. to fire rockets at Israel is therefore key to preventing another conflict that could cost numerous civilian lives and lay waste to infrastructure and lodging built with billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance. For the first time, key international actors — including the U.S. government and the European Union — are on record calling for the disarmament of Gaza as an essential precondition for averting another military confrontation and permitting the reconstruction of civilian infrastructure.
ROCKET INVENTORY AND USE
Israel assesses that Hamas et al. had 10,000 rockets of various types before the latest conflict, with perhaps 400 having a range of more than 80 km. About a third (roughly 3,500) have been expended, a third were destroyed by Israeli strikes, and a third remain intact (including 100-200 of the longest-range weapons) – though Hamas claims it has continued to produce rockets during the conflict. The Gaza arsenal includes short-, medium- and long-range systems:
- Short-range (4-16 km): Qassam-type rockets made in home workshops and Iranian 107 mm Katyusha-type rockets
- Medium-range (20-40 km): Iranian versions of the BM-21 Grad
- Long-range (50-160 km): locally produced rockets such as the S-55, M-75, J-80, R-160, and Buraq-70, as well as the Iranian Fajr-5 and Syrian M-302
About half of the rockets fired thus far have been short-range weapons that landed 4-5 km from the border with Gaza. In addition, Hamas et al. have made extensive use of imported 120 mm mortars (7 km range). Although rockets have been launched from all over the Strip, the greatest concentration of launch sites is in and around Gaza City.
The overwhelming majority of rockets used have been locally produced models, and Israel assesses that it has destroyed 50-60% of Gaza’s rocket production facilities. In the past, foreign-produced rockets were smuggled through tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula, or by floating containers dumped into the sea off the coast. Yet Hamas et al. have had great difficulty importing rockets through the southern tunnels since the July 2013 military ouster of Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Moreover, many locally made rockets are still dependent on imported materials and components: nozzle assemblies, propellant ingredients (the sugar and potassium nitrate mixture previously used has largely been abandoned for more energetic propellants), military-grade explosives for warheads, and fuse assemblies. These are vulnerabilities, as is the reliance on carefully constructed and camouflaged subterranean launch pits (many of which house multiple tube launchers) and truck-mounted launchers for long-range rockets.
The concept of “demilitarization for reconstruction” is an important political objective, progress toward which should guide ceasefire negotiations. In the near term, however, a more viable goal should be to prevent Hamas et al. from rearming and rebuilding their military capabilities — with particular emphasis on their rocket forces — while dismantling those capabilities that pose a risk to public safety or reconstruction efforts. This should be viewed as a first step toward the disarmament and eventual demilitarization of Gaza. In this regard, the two main pillars of limiting the rocket threat are (1) halting the smuggling of rocket components, and (2) dismantling the rocket launcher network in Gaza.
Post-conflict arrangements concerning Gaza border crossings and internal reconstruction should explicitly prohibit smuggling and the unregulated import of materials and equipment that could abet the rebuilding of rocket forces. They should also specify measures that will necessarily result in the neutralization of exposed rocket launchers and prevent the construction of new launchers. The following arrangements would go far toward achieving these ends:
- If the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah is opened to help ease restrictions on Gaza, the relevant provisions of the Agreement on Access and Movement (AMA) — a 2005 accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — should be updated to account for advances in border security techniques and technologies. Moreover, customs personnel would need to be augmented by specialists who can recognize rocket components and related materials. Should customs authorities at Rafah prove unable to meet the required standards, the crossing would remain closed until these standards could be met.
- A PA role in Gaza is essential to reconstruction, but it should be conditioned on a formal reaffirmation of the PA’s longstanding commitment to “one authority, one law, one gun.” In practical terms, this would commit the PA to playing a key support role in all efforts to both prevent the rearming of Hamas et al. and dismantle their military capabilities. The eventual goal would be for the PA to assume a lead role as it gains skills, experience, and the capacity to act.
- PA personnel should man the Palestinian side of all border crossings, augmented by trained customs personnel from the EU and Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. The presence of these foreign personnel would hopefully ensure the professionalism of border security operations at Rafah (until PA personnel were able to assume these responsibilities on their own) and encourage the PA to engage in activities that are liable to elicit the opprobrium of Hamas et al.
- Strict controls should be placed on dual-use items and materials to prevent their diversion for proscribed activities, including end-use monitoring and verification procedures involving PA and international inspectors. Failure to prevent diversion should disqualify the culpable companies or other entities from participating in future reconstruction activities, thus incentivizing them to comply with the controls.
- The disbursement of reconstruction funds and building permits should be contingent on international inspectors completing a detailed survey of all areas within 500 meters of proposed project sites, to identify unexploded ordnance as well as tunnels and rocket launchers that could endanger future occupants. (In military terms, this distance is generally considered the minimum needed to ensure that individuals are not “danger close” to potential air or artillery strikes.) Ordnance should be cleared and tunnels/launchers rendered unusable before work is allowed to begin, with violations resulting in immediate suspension of all work within a 500-meter radius of the infraction. Such inspections should be prescribed for the life of a structure repaired or built as part of the reconstruction effort. A large presence of PA personnel and international inspectors overseeing reconstruction throughout Gaza should also help constrain terrorist efforts to rebuild missile infrastructure and rearm. Finally, a telephone and email tip line should be set up so that Palestinians can report the presence of unexploded ordnance, military tunnels, and rockets/launchers to international reconstruction authorities and the PA.
- The disbursement of reconstruction funds should be linked to maintenance of the ceasefire. Violation of its terms by any group in Gaza should trigger an automatic thirty-day freeze on disbursements. The threat of a thirty-day freeze would have a greater deterrent effect than a longer penalty period, such as six months — the prospects of a rapid return to business as usual would incentivize the PA to prevent breakdowns (since too-frequent disruptions would chase foreign donors and contractors away), while a longer freeze would be seen as too punitive. An independent international commission should be set up to assess the facts regarding alleged ceasefire violations.
- The United States should create a tailored intelligence sharing mechanism to support this effort, starting with Israel and Egypt and gradually expanding to include all participants (the PA, EU states, and Arab states).
- Washington should likewise step up efforts to help Egypt improve its security capabilities along its borders with Libya, Sudan, and Gaza, enabling Cairo to interdict the smuggling of arms that would otherwise make their way to Hamas et al.
- The United States and the international community should more proactively enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1929 and other resolutions that proscribe Iranian arms transfers. This means supporting the interdiction of arms shipments en route to Gaza and imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions for violations of the resolution.
Finally, even if it is not possible at this time, demilitarization should remain a declared goal of international efforts in Gaza. Washington and its partners in reconstruction should emphasize repeatedly to local residents that tangible progress toward demilitarization is crucial — without it, the lives of thousands of Palestinians will be in jeopardy, and outside actors will never see Gaza as a worthwhile destination for billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, let alone investment opportunities. And if another destructive conflict erupts because of a failure to disarm Hamas et al. and demilitarize Gaza, then these same residents should not expect the international community to pay for and assist with yet another reconstruction effort.
Michael Eisenstadt is director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute. Robert Satloff is the Institute’s executive director.