The ceaseless developments in the West Bank and the neighboring countries reveal how complex Israel’s strategic position has become. In the past, this situation could be expressed succinctly enough: the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation alongside a balance of deterrence in favor of Israel against its neighbors’ conventional armies. This was the case even when these countries were controlled by hostile regimes.
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But this reality has split into a raft of sub-segments where the motives and intentions are difficult to assess.
The chaos in the Arab world, which will soon be in its fifth year, affects Israel in many ways. This transformation underscores the realization in Jerusalem that “stable instability” cannot be preserved for much longer. The chaos in the region affects Israel, too, even if it doesn’t lead to an immediate escalation on the border.
Army Radio has reported that behind the rocket fired at the western Negev on Friday was an extremist Palestinian Salafi group in the Gaza Strip, linked to another jihadist group active mainly in the Sinai Peninsula, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Hamas arrested five suspects after the rocket attack; Israel then closed the crossings into the Gaza Strip for two days.
Israeli defense officials are concerned that the rocket fire is connected less to increasing tensions in the Gaza Strip and more to events in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. That is, the Gaza extremist group, against the will of Hamas, responded to the escalation in Jerusalem after the assassination attempt on rightist Yehuda Glick and the killing of the suspected gunman by the police’s special forces.
Israel should now realize that it can’t fully separate the various arenas. During the summer, turmoil in East Jerusalem was inspired by the Gaza war, and now this mechanism is at work in the opposite direction, even when Hamas doesn’t want it that way.
Meanwhile, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis said on websites that it had killed 33 Egyptian soldiers in two attacks in the Sinai at the end of last month because it’s now identifying with the Islamic State. This is happening about two years after reports that the organization was recognized as a branch of Al-Qaida in the Sinai and accepts the authority of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor.
ISIS, of course, is the flavor of the month among the crazier branches of Sunni Islam; its successes against President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and the Shi’ites in Iraq are attracting new followers.
But even if this pledge to fight the Egyptian army and the Jews is reliable, it doesn’t reflect the arrival of Islamic State operatives from Syria at our southern border. Rather, it’s the Islamic State issuing a kind of franchise to an organization in the Sinai.
Yes, this is a comparison to the opening of a branch of a fast-food chain in a new country, but obviously it requires a lot less red tape. Either way, the statement actually serves the Netanyahu government’s claim that Israel is at the forefront of the fight against extremist Islamic terror; that Israel’s war in this respect is identical to the one being waged by the West in general.
The key role of Golan villages
Meanwhile, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, linked to Hezbollah, has reported that an Israeli Druze officer recently conveyed a message to the residents of the Druze village of Hadr on the Syrian side of the border on the Golan Heights.
According to this missive, Israel would be prepared to arm the residents and help them against another extremist Sunni group, the Nusra Front, identified with Al-Qaida and active in the struggle against the Assad regime. That is, this help would be forthcoming if the Nusra Front tried to penetrate the village.
Throughout Syria’s civil war the Druze enclave on the slopes of Mount Hermon has maintained a kind of neutrality, though it has also maintained links with the Assad regime. After the rebels’ progress on the Golan Heights in recent months, they now hold some 90 percent of the area on the border with Israel, except for the Druze enclave and where the Syrian army is present on the Syrian part of Mount Hermon.
The limited Israeli involvement on the Syrian side is no longer a deep secret. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Haaretz last month that the extensive assistance Israel is giving to the inhabitants of the villages on the Golan, via medical treatment in Israeli hospitals and logistical support in the winter, is part of understandings designed to keep the war away from Israel’s borders.
Ya’alon confirmed that in exchange, more-moderate rebel group such as the Free Syrian Army are ensuring that the more zealous opposition groups, first and foremost the Nusra Front, don’t get near the border after the rebels oust Assad’s soldiers from there.
The claim regarding Israeli preparations to arm the Druze has not been confirmed. But Hezbollah’s interest in having this reported is clear. The organization openly concedes that it has breached UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and is once again operating south of the Litani River near the Israeli border.
It claims that these operations, especially around the Israel-Syria-Lebanon border triangle, are a necessary counterweight to Israel’s intervention in Syria. This is further evidence that the current security picture has many variables. It’s more complex and harder to predict than before.