Operation Protective Edge - Phase Two Begins

Hamas still has tunnels under the border into Israel, and despite Israeli claims it's hard to argue that the organization is weaker than before.

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An Israeli missile hits Palestinian buildings in Gaza City on July 17, 2014.
An Israeli missile hits Palestinian buildings in Gaza City on July 17, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Operation Protective Edge went into its second phase Thursday night, when large numbers of Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip. In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the purpose of the ground operation was to destroy the underground tunnels built for carrying out attacks in Israel and would continue until its goals were met: "restoring quiet for the long term while inflicting significant damage on Hamas and the terror organizations. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz did not want a ground operation, but they were dragged into it as a result of Hamas' ongoing rocket fire and its rejection of a cease-fire. Netanyahu has so far been careful not to enter the trap that his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, charged into.

Still, not every ground operation means reocuppying the Gaza Strip. It is possible to conduct a limited operation that will attempt to extract a high price from Hamas without remaining in the territory for months.

The Israeli forces entered the Strip after a deceptive maneuver, in which the news media were told that the inner cabinet would only be meeting on Friday morning. It's not clear that Hamas took the bait. After all, it was actually the big patriot Naftali Bennett, minister of the economy, who on Thursday afternoon while making a speech about Israel's "iron first" wished the soldiers good luck in the challenges they were to face.

Hamas tried early Thursday, almost desperately, to paint a picture of military victory in the Gaza Strip, just before the six-hour humanitarian cease-fire went into effect. The thwarted terror attack, using a tunnel that began in the Gaza Strip and surfaced near Kibbutz Sufa, spoiled that picture. It followed a similar attempt at Kerem Shalom of July 7.

The infiltration near Kibbutz Sufa was followed by massive rocket fire at the Sharon region, north of Tel Aviv, as well as at southern Israel. Like most of the Hamas rockets so far, they left behind mainly a number of people who were treated for shock and mild injuries as a result of falling while running to shelters. At 3 P.M., when the six-hour humanitarian cease-fire ended, Hamas resumed firing rockets into Israel, and the Israel Air Force resumed its bombing sorties in the Strip.

But the real action has moved to Cairo, where the Egyptians are putting enormous pressure on Hamas to agree to a cease-fire under terms also acceptable to Israel. The Egyptians abandoned the talks for a few days, but returned when they discovered that Qatar and Turkey were trying to get a mediation effort of their own going. Attaining quiet between Israel and Gaza is the first international test for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. The Hamas political leadership will have difficulty refusing but the final say will apparently be left to the head of the organization’s military wing, Mohammed Def.

Def, who is approaching his 50th birthday (the question of whether he’ll reach it is still open), has been considered a leader of the military wing in the Gaza Strip since the mid-1990s. Israel tried to assassinate him a number of times; he recovered and returned to lead the military wing after the IAF assassinated its leader Ahmed Jabari on the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Decision-making in Hamas is be a complex system of balances between the political leadership in Gaza (Ismail Haniyeh), the political leadership abroad (Khaled Meshal in Qatar and Moussa Abu Marzouk in Egypt) and the military leadership in the Strip. Unlike Jabari, Def has tense relations with the political leadership. He is now considered the decision-maker and more influential than his coleader of the military wing, Marwan Issa. Def is thought to be behind the decision to escalate the fighting with Israel in an attempt to break the strategic and economic blockade of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He is leading the hawkish line now, believing that he can extract more political and military concessions before agreeing to a cease-fire. It is no coincidence that Hamas’ main offensives now are by the southern brigades in Khan Yunis and in Rafah, which are more under the influence of Def, a Khan Yunis native. The attempted attack near Sufa may turn out to have been his idea, an attempt to foil an agreement.

It has already been stated here that a cease-fire is almost an internal Arab matter, hinging on resolution of the dispute among Hamas, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. But there is apparently a struggle underway between Sissi and Def, and the patience of the Egyptian generals seems to be wearing thin. They have already threatened a helicopter attack on the Gaza Strip. The new regime’s approach to the use of force can be seen in the way it has flattened neighborhoods on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border in recent months in its attempt to stop the smuggling industry, actions that the international community has accepted with a wide collective yawn.

Even if the Egyptians manage to bring about an end to hostilities over the weekend, Operation Protective Edge cannot be considered an Israeli success. Iron Dome has been the main factor that has meanwhile prevented our embroilment in a strategic failure in Gaza. It has minimized Israeli losses from more than 1,400 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and cooled down bad ideas like reoccupying the entire Strip. The offensive picture is less encouraging. Only a portion of the mid-range Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets has been taken out (Military Intelligence concedes it lacks information on the location of some of them), and the factions’ main leadership has not been harmed. Because Hamas initiated the current round and dictated its main terms, Israel did not begin this round with an advantage.

In the past, Hamas was able to increase the number and range of its rockets between Operation Cast Lead (2009) and Pillar of Defense (2012) and from then to the current operation. This time, it may be harder for the organization because Egypt has cut its supply lines, Iran is not replenishing its arms and the civil war in Syria has also had an effect. Local, Gaza-made rockets are usually less lethal and precise and take longer to manufacture.

Def and his comrades may see this round as their victory if it eases the blockade on the Strip. Deterrence is a difficult concept to define and it is hard to determine how long it will last or what other factors will enter into the equation. Who could have predicted the effect the civil war in Syria would have on Hezbollah’s intentions against Israel, or the effect on Hamas of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

What is clear is that Israel is drawing imaginary red lines from one crisis to another. It was once believed that Hamas would not dare target Tel Aviv. Now it is clear the organization will use all means available, from shooting at northern Israel to crossing under the border to carry out a massacre on a kibbutz. And so, two things are clear. Another round of fighting is just a matter of time and Israel must better prepare offensively to head off future bad tidings in the north.

Underestimating the threats to Israel

In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces has taken pride in the transformation of its Military Intelligence, which has introduced technological and other improvements despite the many new arenas it faces. These changes have been felt in recent operations and in a series of successful operations beyond Israel’s borders that the international media attributes to Israel, from Syria to the Red Sea to Sudan. But there is a risk inherent in these achievements. Israel has suffered in the past from the arrogant notion that intelligence can invariably predict and thwart the enemy’s intentions. Politicians are especially vulnerable to this risk because good intelligence ostensibly restricts the extent of uncertainty in which they operate, certainly when they are making life-and-death decisions such as whether to launch a ground operation during a military conflict.

Here and there, the current round of fighting exposes the limitations of prediction. This must be taken into consideration in the future, when the current operation ends. The Middle East is prone to strategic shake-ups now even more than in the past, as shown by turning points like the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s staying power.

Israel’s decision (tardy in itself) in 2007 to equip itself with the Iron Dome system was made when facing a threat that still seemed limited compared to what we are facing now. Opponents at the time stressed the high cost of every interceptor rocket – about $50,000 — compared to the low cost and great quantity of Palestinian rockets, not to mention those of Hezbollah. As of Thursday night, more than 300 interceptor rockets had been fired. Even if their total cost has exceeded 60 million shekels, few would question the benefit of the expense in terms of lives saved, as well as the avoidance of a ground operation that civilian losses might have prompted.

Israel’s leaders, laboring under a weighty risks and a constant shortage of funds, frequently underestimates the threats to the country. That was true for the rockets in the current operation, which did not lack for surprises. It was also true for the issue of distributing gas masks to protect civilians from chemical weapons. Early this year the cabinet decided to stop the program, in the wake of Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament. But the defense establishment believes small amounts of chemical weapons could remain in the hands of Syria and possibly of other regional actors. This is one of the issues that should be revisited after Operation Protective Edge is over.

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