Assad, Hamas, and Israel's Disappearing Deterrence

On both the Syria and Gaza fronts, the upkeep of military deterrence is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The events of the last two days in the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip reflect the nature of the security challenge Israel must now confront. There’s no danger of a real war, at least for now. But on both the Syrian border and the border with Hamas in Gaza there is instability that is manifested in sporadic fire into Israel. The Netanyahu government is trying to see to it that these conflicts remain contained and do not escalate into a wider conflict.

On the Syrian front Israel must cope with a weak central government whose control over events along the border has been greatly diminished; it is not always clear who is doing the firing and whether it was approved at the highest rungs of government.

The Gaza City government is stronger than its Damascus counterpart. Until the renewed tensions of recent weeks, Hamas proved capable of controlling the border with Israel in the months since Operation Pillar of Defense.

But over the past 48 hours rockets and mortar shells were fired into the Negev on two occasions. The factions affiliated with the global jihad movement that claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s incidents have the same ideological background as the groups that fired rockets at Sderot two weeks ago, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel.

Israel has responded in a similar manner to the cross-border firing from Syria and from the Gaza Strip: To each incident of shelling or burst of machine-gun fire on the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces responds by firing a missile or tank shells directly at the Syrian army positions from which the fire originated ‏(these have generally been the same positions‏). In Gaza, the Israel Air Force bombed two Hamas targets early yesterday morning in response to Tuesday’s mortar shells.

Israel’s official position, as expressed this week by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, is that there must be an immediate response to any fire on Israeli territory. In practice Israel is trying to preserve its deterrence on both fronts, by reminding the other parties that Israel has the military edge and they would do well not to force a wider contest.

But in both cases this aim is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. The turmoil in Syria is so great − human rights organizations estimate that in March about 6,000 people were killed in the country’s civil war − that it’s doubtful Damascus can control its military forces fighting the insurgents near the Israeli border. Moreover, it is still not even clear whether the Syrian soldiers are deliberately firing into our territory or are simply missing their real targets, the rebels who have occupied an enclave of villages along the border.

Despite the threats, Israel can still be pleased that the war in Syria is not trickling into its territory more forcefully, as it has into Lebanon. The alternatives, such as the Assad regime’s introduction of chemical weapons against the rebels ‏(which would increase apprehensions about the imminent disintegration of the Damascus regime, including the loss of control over its weapons stores‏) seem far worse.

Gaza is a different case. For four months, until nearly the end of March, Hamas imposed iron discipline on the smaller factions and completely prevented any firing into Israel. Now it seems that the cease-fire is weakening. Was this intentional?

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said yesterday morning in radio interviews that Hamas does not want an escalation and that the Israeli air strike was meant to clarify to the organization that Israel will not tolerate a return to the situation in the months before Operation Pillar of Defense − that is, missiles and mortar shells being fired into southern Israel two or three times a month.

The other Israeli security branches, as well as Palestinian analysts, agree that Hamas is not looking to engage the IDF. In practice, however, the gains of Israel’s November military operation are beginning to erode. The factions in Gaza are now using weak excuses ‏(most recently, the death from cancer of a Palestinian security prisoner being held in Israel‏) to open fire.

Israel’s response so far has been restrained, not least because there have been no casualties on our side. But a rise in the number of rockets launched at the Negev could drag Israel into another round of attacks on the Gaza Strip and is liable to reduce the interval before yet another round, down the road, even if neither Israel nor Hamas really wants a fight.

A bomb technician collects the remains of a rocket launched from Gaza Strip falling close to Sderot on April 3, 2013. Credit: AFP

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