Two military incidents that occurred on the penultimate day of the Jewish year may portend the strategic reality Israel will face in the coming year. In the West Bank, soldiers killed the two Hamas terrorists suspected of kidnapping and killing three Israeli teens in June. And on the Golan Heights, Israel downed a Syrian warplane that entered Israeli airspace, presumably in error.
Yet this is far from the full picture. The new year will open with growing tension on the northern border, since Hezbollah has changed its policy: It now intends to respond harshly to any perceived Israeli violation of the status quo. And in Gaza, the bloodiest front of the past year, efforts to stabilize the situation through a long-term cease-fire are resuming. The intelligence agencies don’t see any immediate danger of escalation on either front, but the situation is becoming increasingly complex. After several years of relative security, the situation in Israel seems much more fragile and temporary now.
The two Hamas terrorists killed on Tuesday, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, evaded capture for more than 100 days. After switching hideouts several times, they spent the last six weeks in a small (1 meter by 6 meters) concealed room in a Hebron carpentry shop owned by a Hamas operative. The owner was arrested on Monday and divulged his comrades’ hiding place, the Shin Bet security service said.
What happened next shouldn’t surprise anyone. Both men were armed with rifles and pistols, and like most of the other members of Hamas’ military wing in Hebron that Israel has hunted down, they preferred to fight to the death rather than surrender.
The two Hamas men took advantage of the unusually slow Israeli response to the kidnapping — hours were wasted due to a police hotline’s botched handling of a call from one of the teens — to flee. Nevertheless, the fact that it took so long to catch them, even though their identities were known and the Palestinian Authority provided occasional assistance, tarnished the mythos of Israel’s total military and intelligence control over the West Bank.
One question that hasn’t been fully answered is the kidnappers’ connection to the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. At first, the intelligence agencies thought the connection was weak. It was learned later that Hussam Qawasmeh, the leader of the three-man cell, who was arrested in July, had received 220,000 shekels ($60,000) from his brother in Gaza, some of which was spent on the kidnapping. The brother, who was freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange, works for the Hamas headquarters responsible for carrying out terror attacks that is aided by Saleh Arouri, a senior Hamas official who lives in Turkey. Nevertheless, Israel believes the cell was operating under general orders to exploit any opportunity for a kidnapping rather than carrying out specific orders to perpetrate an attack at that specific time.
Talks on a long-term cease-fire in Gaza began in Cairo as planned on Tuesday, though the Palestinians almost pulled out over the killing of Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh. The delegations are only discussing the agenda of the talks, which won’t move into high gear until after next week.
Reconstruction in the Gaza Strip is proceeding very slowly, unfortunately, even though the number of cargo trucks entering from Israel has almost doubled. The PA has repeatedly told Gazans that unless members of its security forces, which have been absent from the Strip since Hamas seized power there in 2007, are allowed to return to the border crossings, rebuilding in the territory cannot be guaranteed. Israel and Egypt behave as if they have all the time in the world, but unless agreements are reached on reconstruction and lifting easing the restrictions on Gaza, hostilities could resume.
In the Golan Heights, Israel on Tuesday downed a Syrian warplane for the first time since 1985. The plane was intercepted by a Patriot missile after penetrating 800 meters into Israeli airspace. Though it turned back shortly after the missile was launched, it was already too late to abort the launch. The pilots ejected and landed in Syrian territory.
The plane apparently crossed the border by mistake while attacking rebel targets on the Syrian side. But Israel doesn’t take chances under such circumstances. The situation on the Syrian side is so unstable that it’s impossible to predict when someone — whether from the Assad regime’s forces or a rebel militia — will decide to perpetrate an attack inside Israel. Israel can overlook occasional stray fire landing in its territory, but not a warplane entering its airspace.
The situation in the north, where rebels now control about 90 percent of the Syrian-Israeli border, is complicated further by Hezbollah’s presence on the Lebanese border. Military Intelligence believes Hezbollah is abandoning its previous policy of restraint and now intends to respond to any perceived violation of Lebanese or Syrian territory. Since the start of the year, Hezbollah and other groups in the Assad camp have carried out several attacks in the Golan and along the Lebanese border, which they term retaliation for Israeli aggression.
On September 5, in an incident that received little attention here, a Hezbollah sapper was killed when an espionage device exploded in south Lebanon. Beirut accuses Israel of detonating the device remotely after it was discovered. And two weeks later, an Israeli drone crashed in south Lebanon.
The developments on Israel’s border are merely a sideshow to the internecine fighting in Syria and Iraq, where the United States and its allies began air strikes on the Islamic State’s forces this week. Israel’s contribution to this effort consists mainly of providing intelligence. But in another sign of the upheaval in the Middle East, the U.S. battle against IS also has the indirect support of Iran and Hezbollah.
Over the past year, the regional instability drew ever closer to Israel’s borders. There are now so many different variables in the strategic situation that it’s very difficult to make predictions for the year to come.
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