Gaza powder keg flares up again
Nov 14, 2012
November 14, 2012
Number 11/12 #03
This Update deals with the latest major outbreak of violence from Gaza – resulting in more than 140 rocket hits on Israel since Saturday, a number of Israeli retaliatory strike on Gaza targets, and rocket attacks still occurring as of a few hours ago, despite claims of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Details of the rockets and the injuries that they have caused are summed up in this pdf document prepared by Israeli security officials.
First up in providing analysis is noted Israeli security columnist Ron Ben Yishai, who argues that the current round of violence is something that Israel, Egypt and Hamas probably all wanted to avoid, at least for the time being, but nonetheless found themselves dragged into. He says the instigators were various Salafist groups which do seek major conflict – unlike Hamas, which wants to fight Israel, but wishes to do so without being dragged into a major conflict, and while maximising the support it can get from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other allies in the Sunni world. He also discusses the dilemmas of the Israeli government, with an election coming up, and with Hamas apparently assuming that a major military campaign may well be seen as too politically and strategically risky at present. For Ben Yishai’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. As Ben Yishai suggested, the Brotherhood-led Egyptian government has slammed Israel for its retaliation for the rocket attacks and referred to Israel as the ” Zionist occupier” and a “racist state,”
Next up is another Israeli military affairs correspondent, Yaakov Lappin of the Jerusalem Post, who places Gaza events into a larger regional context. He notes that the events of the Arab spring – an especially the change of government in Egypt, have damaged Israel’s ability to deter attack, with Hamas in Gaza banking on Egyptian government backing preventing major Israeli retaliation for rocket attacks. He also places the recent shelling of the Israeli-controlled Golan from Syria into the same context. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE. More on Israel’s need to re-establish deterrence comes from Alex Fishman, yet another security affairs reporter in Israel. Plus, the Times of Israel reports on the kind of responses Israel’s security establishment is considering in answer to the rocket attacks.
Finally, there is a slightly older but still highly relevant analysis of the overall dangerous situation surrounding Gaza from General (ret.) Michael Herzog, now serving as a Washington Institute military analyst. In a piece actually written after the last major explosion of Gaza violence two weeks ago, he notes that the rise of Salafists in Gaza along with Hamas’ increasingly confident position make the area explosive, with no obvious end in sight to the constant outbreaks of rocket fire and retaliation. He suggests the only solution must be found outside Gaza – in the form of international pressure on Hamas’ major patrons, Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – to force the group to actually enforce a ceasefire. For this telling look at why, even if the current ceasefire holds, the Gaza violence is likely to be back in the headlines again very soon, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An account of the rocket attacks on Sderot in southern Israel.
- Two Jerusalem Post editorials on the Gaza situation – one dealing with making Israel’s case about Gaza to the world and another about rethinking Israel’s relationship to the constantly problematic enclave. Plus, the Wall Street Journal recently had an editorial calling attention to the degree to which Israel has already shown the “restraint” always demanded of it when rockets are fired from Gaza.
- Jonathan Tobin on the relationship between the Gaza rocket offensive and the Palestinian Authority bid for an upgraded status at the UN. Plus, US foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead on how the bid creates a headache for newly re-elected US President Obama.
- Isi Leibler writes about his impressions in the wake of the US election, and some advice for Israel’s government in dealing with the Obama Administration in their second term.
- Other interesting recent comments on the Israel-American relations in Obama’s second term are here, here, here, here and here.
- Michael Eiesenstadt and David Pollock of the Washington Institute on why the US-Israel relationship serves US interests. More on US interests and Israel from Middle East policy expert Steven Cook. Plus a fascinating look at the many fruits of US-Israel collaboration.
- Hamas police attack peaceful women demonstrators calling for Palestinian unity with sticks.
- Various stories highlighting that democracy in Tunisia looks like it may be losing ground to Islamism and extremism – see here, here, here and here.
- An interview with noted Israeli historian Benny Morris on the realities of the historical and present Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
- An interesting argument that Obama’s most significant Middle East challenge in his second term may comes from a seldom talked about country – Yemen.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Sharyn Mittelman on both the latest human rights abusers elected to the UN Human Rights Council and the double standards from UNRWA regarding attacks on their schools and the killing of Palestinians in Syria, as compared to Gaza.
- Or Avi-Guy discusses some new footage demonstrating how Palestinian children are being used to try to deliberately provoke Israeli soldiers into misconduct at West Bank demonstrations in the hopes of getting positive media coverage.
- Ahron Shapiro looks at the kerfuffle over the exhumation of Yasser Arafat’s body in an effort to identify the cause of his death.
Analysis: Gaza terrorists assume Israel won’t launch broad military campaign before elections
Ron Ben Yishai
According to the annual IDF Intelligence assessment, which was recently presented to the General Staff, there is a “high probability that we will find ourselves in a war-like situation in 2013” on one of two fronts: Gaza-Sinai in the south or Syria-Lebanon in the north. It appears that this scenario will unfold sooner than anticipated.
The firing of an anti-tank missile from Gaza at an IDF vehicle inside Israeli territory is another stage in the deterioration into a war-like situation which Israel, Egypt and Hamas want to avoid but are being dragged into quickly. As in a Greek play, all of the sides involved are aware that a broad military campaign in Gaza may cause them great suffering and damage, but no one is able to stop the process that will apparently lead to this tragedy. The tragic heroes in this play are Hamas’ leaders and the residents of south Israel.
It is safe to assume that Hamas did not initiate the missile attack on Saturday, just as it did not initiate most of the border incidents over the past few weeks, because the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo wants calm in both Sinai and Gaza.
Morsi needs this calm because he has yet to establish political dominance in Egypt and also because he wants to stabilize the economy and internal security. Hamas fears an Israeli invasion that will cause great suffering to Gaza’s residents and frustration that could threaten its rule in the coastal enclave.
However, Hamas did provide backup for the defiant Gaza terror groups that were behind most of the shooting incidents and attacks along the border fence. It is important to understand that as opposed to Hamas, Palestinian terrorists belonging to Global Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (as well as Salafi terrorists) are seeking a major confrontation between the IDF and Hamas and between the IDF and Egypt’s armed forces. They are driven by ideology and religion.
Hamas, for its part, wants to engage in an armed conflict against Israel from Gaza, with the assistance of the defiant terror groups, without dragging Israel into an extensive military campaign that would also put the Egyptian leadership to the test.
Hamas claims that it is conducting legitimate guerrilla warfare against the “occupation,” just as Hezbollah did in the security zone in south Lebanon, but when the IDF returns fire and hits targets inside Gaza, thwarts attempts to launch rockets or neutralizes bombs a few hundred meters inside Palestinian territory, Hamas tells its patrons in Cairo, Qatar and Ankara that Israel is violating its sovereignty and it therefore has the right to launch rockets toward Israeli communities in the Negev.
Hamas’ tactics are aimed at securing the support of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Sunnis throughout the Arab world. This is why the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire reached a few months ago following the last round of violence has been violated. The border incidents are becoming more and more frequent, and the number of injured IDF soldiers is also increasing.
Now that the intentions of Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian terror groups are clear, the ball is in Israel’s court. The forces have undergone training and are ready. Now the government must decide between allowing the current situation to continue at least until after the January elections and launching an extensive military campaign in Gaza.
The decision-makers in Jerusalem must ask themselves if the conditions in the international and regional arenas will provide the IDF with enough time and freedom to operate in order to achieve its military goals in Gaza. And there are other questions: How will the new regime in Egypt respond to an Israeli campaign in Gaza? How will Turkey react? Will the political echelon be able to take advantage of the military achievements to ensure long-term calm in the south?
The elections are another consideration. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu will most likely benefit from a successful military campaign, but a failed campaign will strengthen the opposition parties.
Another option is the targeted killing of Hamas leaders and the heads of other terror organizations in Gaza. The problem with such a campaign is that before it brings about calm (if at all), it will surely result in a long period of escalation, during which hundreds of rockets and thousands of mortars would be fired toward south Israel.
Even if Hamas decides that it wants a ceasefire, it is not at all certain that Islamic Jihad or the Popular Resistance Committees will comply. In the past, when Hamas was more dominant, a targeted-killing campaign led to nearly eight months of calm, but it is highly unlikely that such a campaign would yield the same results today.
It appears that Hamas’ leadership in Gaza is assuming that the current Israeli government will not want to launch a major military operation before the elections. This is apparently one of the reasons for the escalation along the Israel-Gaza border. Now it is up to the IDF to prove to the Gaza terrorists their calculations were wrong – but without angering Egypt. This is not an easy task.
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By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) Analysis, November 13, 2012
Israel is facing an unenviable challenge these days, to regain its deterrence in a chaotic neighborhood in which its enemies are feeling emboldened. As a direct result of the regional turmoil, Israel is dealing with the deterioration of security on two fronts simultaneously.
In the south, the time bomb that is Gaza has, once again, gone off. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and smaller assorted jihadi organizations have stepped up their attacks on IDF patrols along the border, through roadside bombs, missile attacks, and explosives-laden tunnels under the border.
When the IDF responds, the terror organizations seize on Israel’s attempt to defend its soldiers as a justification to launch large-scale rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, and fire rockets at southern cities, towns, and villages.
In the most recent case, Islamic Jihad terrorists fired a sophisticated Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile at an IDF jeep patrolling the border, injuring four soldiers. IDF tanks stationed near Gaza returned fire, killing six Palestinians.
This was the development Palestinian terror factions had been waiting for. They fired more than 120 rockets at the Israeli south in just over two days. Their aim: To deter the IDF from carrying out vital security missions along the Gaza border.
While the Iron Dome anti-rocket shield has kept the major cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Be’ersheva relatively safe, intercepting many rockets, smaller towns such as Sderot and Netivot have absorbed wave after wave of rockets from Gaza.
Four Israeli civilians have been injured in this latest round of attacks, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis are living in a state of uncertainty and fear, their daily routine interrupted by the sounds of air raid sirens and the dash to a bomb shelter. The psychological trauma this is causing to the area’s children is enormous.
How has Israeli deterrence hit such a low point since Operation Cast Lead of 2009? The answer can be found in Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood is now in power and is busy realigning Egypt with fellow Islamists in Gaza.
Gone are the days when Hamas’s Gaza was an isolated enclave facing a hostile Egypt under Mubarak. Gaza’s rulers know they are part of a new and rising bloc of Sunni Islamist states, led by Egypt, and joined by Turkey. Feeling emboldened by this shift, Hamas and its terrorist allies in Gaza are confronting Israel head on, firing rockets at will, and carrying out border raids every few days.
The terror factions in Gaza are banking on the idea that Israel will be deterred from responding appropriately due to the fear that this would endanger the peace treaty with Egypt.
The signs coming out of Jerusalem in recent days indicate that this assumption is wrong. The IDF has long been prepared for a major operation in Gaza – be it a stepped up air campaign against hundreds of terrorist targets, or an air campaign combined with a ground offensive – to lift the rocket menace hovering over southern Israel.
Such an operation could result in Hamas and Islamic Jihad – the latter being Iran’s closest proxy in Gaza – attempting to fire long-range rockets at greater Tel Aviv.
But that would only encourage a more forceful Israeli response, one that could endanger the survivability of the Hamas regime, and cause serious damage to the operational branches of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Meanwhile, on the northern front, the IDF has fired on Syrian military positions twice in two days.
The first incident, on Sunday, began when a Syrian shell exploded near an IDF outpost on the Golan Heights – one of many recent similar episodes. In accordance with a plan drawn up by the IDF’s Northern Command together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the IDF fired a warning shot, in the form of a highly accurate and costly Tamuz ground-to-ground missile, at a Syrian military position.
The next day, the Syrians failed to heed the warnings, and a second mortar shell exploded in Israel. This time around, the IDF directed tank fire at two Syrian army mortar positions, striking them directly.
This was more than a warning shot. It was an indication that Israel had lost patience with the continued violation of its sovereignty, and that the time had passed for verbal warnings, of the type that had been sent repeatedly to the Assad regime via the UN.
The ball is now in Assad’s court. He can instruct his forces to use more caution when fighting rebels close to the Israeli border, or he can continue to disregard Israel’s warnings, and risk an escalating Israeli response.
With the chaos currently engulfing Syria, it remains unclear how much control Damascus has over its armed forces. The possibility that Assad is seeking a limited provocation with Israel, to regain legitimacy in the Arab world and within Syria itself, also exists.
Either way, the danger of an escalation on the Syrian border has never been higher. The good news is that the IDF is fully prepared for such developments, having completed a vigorous and lengthy training program for its tanks, infantry, and artillery units that are stationed on the Golan Heights.
The developments on both the northern and southern fronts could not have occurred were it not for the Arab winter which has taken hold of the region.
The days of regional stability and an Egyptian-led Arab Sunni drive for calm are gone. With them, Israeli deterrence has also diminished.
Israel now has an uphill struggle to reinstate that deterrence, whether it is through a major operation in Gaza, or the protection of its national boundary in the face of a crumbling Syria.
Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.
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November 1, 2012
Convincing Hamas to contain Gaza’s increasingly violent jihadists will likely require international pressure on the group’s backers in Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar.
The violent blows exchanged between Israel and armed Islamist groups in Gaza over the past few weeks mark a dangerous shift. The pattern of occasional clashes established after Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead has given way to protracted fire with very short lulls. Although neither Israel nor Hamas wants the situation to escalate into a major confrontation, things could ultimately get out of hand as jihadist groups step up their violent activities.
JIHADISTS ON THE RISE
The primary engine behind this deterioration is the growth of armed jihadist groups in Gaza over the past few years. These groups, many consisting of former Hamas members, are ideologically and sometimes organizationally affiliated with al-Qaeda and do not feel bound by Hamas ceasefire rules regarding Israel. Rather, they closely cooperate with Sinai jihadists to plan and carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.
The main jihadist groups currently operating in Gaza are Jaish al-Islam, Jund Ansar Allah, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Ansar al-Sunna; the latter two are also part of an umbrella framework called the “Shura Council of Jihad Fighters in Greater Jerusalem.” Jaish al-Islam, led by Mumtaz Dughmush, participated in the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, among other incidents. Egyptian authorities believe it also played a role in the August 2012 attack that left sixteen Egyptian soldiers dead on the Sinai-Israel border. Al-Tawhid is responsible for the June 2012 Sinai border attack that killed an Israeli citizen, for the April 2011 abduction and murder of Italian journalist Vittorio Arrigoni, and other incidents.
As these groups stepped up their attacks from Gaza and Sinai, Israel has gradually changed its tactics, employing preventive airstrikes against cells that are about to launch rockets as well as interceptive strikes against jihadist leaders active in terrorism. One salient example is the October 13 killing of Hisham Ali Saidani (a.k.a. Abu Walid al-Maqdisi), a leading al-Tawhid figure with a long track record of jihadist activities in Jordan, Iraq, and Gaza. According to Israeli intelligence, he was on the verge of carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel. In addition, Israel has targeted operatives in Gaza with clear links to impending or perpetrated attacks from Sinai; it is reluctant to act in the peninsula itself for fear of undermining fragile relations with Egypt.
The result has been a new reality of tit-for-tat tactics and more frequent upsurges, with no end in sight. On October 23, for example, an Israeli soldier was severely wounded by an explosive activated on the Gaza border fence. Israel responded with airstrikes against militants in Gaza, who then hit back with a barrage of some eighty rockets over the next two days. An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire lowered the flames for only a short while, as jihadist groups would not abide by it. Indeed, given Cairo’s limited sway over these factions, its traditional mediating capacity between Israel and Gaza has weakened.
HAMAS BALANCING BETWEEN PRESSURES
As the governing body in Gaza, Hamas still holds the key to controlling this volatile situation. Yet the increase in Salafist and jihadist terrorist activities is a serious challenge that puts the group between a rock and a hard place.
Ideologically, Hamas sees itself as an Islamic jihadist organization committed to Israel’s destruction through “armed resistance.” It does not want to lose these credentials, and it resents the jihadist groups for portraying it as collaborating with and protecting Israel.
At the same time, Hamas has domestic and external responsibilities as a government. The scars of Operation Cast Lead remain fresh in its mind, and Egypt has been pressing the group for restraint and containment. With the loss of Syria as an anchor, the resulting rift with Iran, and the added weight on its Gaza leadership, Hamas is even more dependent on Cairo and therefore more careful not to undermine relations with it. Despite being emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent next door, Hamas has not received automatic support from Egypt’s postrevolutionary government. Having lost effective control over parts of Sinai and shifted its focus to domestic challenges, Cairo is now demanding that Hamas maintain better control over jihadists in Gaza, halt its cross-border activities in and through Sinai, and prevent escalation.
Moreover, Hamas believes that it is in the process of breaking its isolation and economic impasse with the help of a Sunni protective umbrella extended by Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. The Qatari emir’s October 23 trip to Gaza — the first-ever state visit to the Hamas-controlled territory — is a milestone in this process. The $400 million he offered, together with Turkish pledges and other funds, may turn the Hamas entity into a more successful model than its sister-rival in the West Bank, which is on the verge of economic collapse due to its lack of outside financial aid. Hamas is reassured by the thought that this shield compounds Israel’s reluctance to escalate into a second Cast Lead. Yet the Sunni influence also restrains the group’s own actions.
As Hamas maneuvers between these conflicting pressures, it is playing a complicated, risky game of brinkmanship. It strives to curb jihadists from inflaming tensions, but generally refrains from imposing its will head-on unless they pose a direct challenge to its control of Gaza. While Hamas usually does not initiate rocket fire against Israel, it turns a blind eye to others who do so, or in some cases apprehends and soon releases the perpetrators. In recent weeks, Hamas joined the firing on occasion and assumed public responsibility for it, though it launched only shorter-range rockets and mortars and aimed for open spaces, or what it terms “military targets.”
ISRAEL ON THE HORNS OF A DILEMMA
Nearly four years after Cast Lead, it is clear to Israelis that their deterrence in Gaza is eroding. The rockets and mortars falling daily in southern Israel have been driving hundreds of thousands of people into shelters, putting pressure on the government to take stronger action against Hamas. Accordingly, Israeli forces have stepped up their pinpoint airstrikes against jihadist and Hamas targets in a bid to compel Hamas to impose a ceasefire on the other militant groups. Given the internal dynamics in Gaza, however, these efforts have yet to bear fruit. Israel has also beefed up its active and passive defenses with Iron Dome rocket-interception batteries and additional shelters, but these measures are insufficient to meet the growing challenge.
To be sure, Israel has compelling strategic reasons to avoid major confrontation in Gaza. It still faces a decision on Iran in the coming year, as well as great uncertainty along its borders with Syria and Lebanon. It has also been careful not to shake its very sensitive relations with Egypt, as could be the case if Israel were to invade Gaza. And while the upcoming elections in late January encourage tough responses in Gaza, they inhibit major escalation. Even so, if Israel is unable to stop the current trend, or if the rocket fire causes unbearable physical or psychological damage (e.g., a lethal attack on a school), Israel could well be forced to launch a large-scale operation into Gaza.
The situation in Gaza is explosive, with Hamas and other armed groups lighting matches on the powder keg. This calls for immediate efforts to avert an unwarranted escalation. Hamas should be made to understand that it is miscalculating Israel’s willingness to continue taking fire and could face undesirable consequences, to the point of losing its hold on Gaza. In addition to Israel’s pressure, the United States and the international community should use their leverage over key Hamas backers — namely Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar — to convince the group to clamp down on jihadists and enforce a ceasefire.
Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, IDF (Ret.), is The Washington Institute’s Milton Fine international fellow, based in Israel. Previously, he served as chief of staff to Israel’s minister of defense.