From Syria to Egypt, Israel Bracing for Complex - and Unconventional - Security Challenges

The instability along the borders with Israel's neighbors makes it difficult for intelligence analysts to predict when or where the next conflict might arise.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

“Don’t let the quiet fool you,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned on the eve of Memorial Day this week. Two days later, at the traditional reception for senior defense establishment personnel, held on Independence Day eve by the defense minister − in this case, the newly installed Moshe Ya’alon − members of the General Staff talked about the dissonance the country is experiencing at present.

On the one hand, things are extraordinarily quiet as compared with the past 13 years, and the number of Israelis killed in terrorist activity ‏(not to mention wars‏) is, relatively, very low. On the other hand, the instability along the borders with Israel’s neighbors makes it difficult for intelligence analysts to predict where or when the next conflict might arise. Moreover, this fluid situation also generates ongoing concern about possible unexpected security developments.

The next morning, Wednesday, a volley of two Grad rockets was fired from the Sinai Peninsula at Eilat, marking the seventh time the southern resort has come under rocket fire in the past three years.

The rapture with which the IDF brass surrendered to the collective embrace of the public and the media in the week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, with its succession of ceremonies and lofty militant rhetoric, does indeed give rise to a certain unease. We could also do without the self-pity heard in the debate over the necessary slashing of the defense budget. But at bottom − and this is true of the General Staff’s behavior over the past two decades, with the exception of part of the term of Shaul Mofaz as chief of staff, at the start of the second intifada − the approach of the senior officer corps toward the security threats facing Israel has been sober-eyed, and even quite tempered.

Without trying to guess the political leanings of Lt. Gen. Gantz, it is probably not by chance that over the past few decades − a period in which right-wing governments were in power much of the time − most of the retired generals who entered politics landed in the space between the Zionist left and the political center. The majority of them also expressed a certain optimism about the chances of achieving a true peace with the Palestinians. Ya’alon, who joined Likud, is an exception, though it’s also difficult to accuse him of being a warmonger ‏(he has a moderate stance on the question of whether to attack Iran‏).

The overall approach of the General Staff − from Ya’alon via Dan Halutz and Gabi Ashkenazi, to Gantz − is, for the most part, one of restraint. The army does not balk at the use of force when needed, but does not push the political leadership to become entangled in unnecessary military campaigns.

This remains true now as well, when new and complex threats are developing, even if intelligence analysts are still unable to delineate them precisely. Neither the General Staff nor the third government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears eager to resort to the use of uncontrolled force. Nor are they deluding themselves that a few more or less targeted aerial attacks will be enough to impose order on the new fronts which are seething with unrest.

No specific target

Gantz aimed most of his remarks this week at Syria. The rapid breakdown of order there, with none of the sides capable of emerging victorious in the civil war, he said, is impacting the situation along Israel’s border with Syria. Rocket fire by one of the splinter groups associated with Al-Qaida could also happen in the Golan Heights, and not only across the Egyptian border from Sinai.

To date, most of the shooting incidents on the Syrian border have been attributed to the army of President Bashar Assad. Israel has categorized them, with high probability, as being mistaken moves by Syrian soldiers. Israel has been able to respond to these violations of the cease-fire agreements on the Golan Heights with precise attacks, by means of Tamuz missiles or tank shells aimed at the specific position from which the firing originated. However, should Al-Qaida and its splinter groups enter the picture − and all the realistic assessments say this will happen sooner or later − there will be no specific place to target. Exacting a price from Assad’s palace in Damascus will have no effect, because those groups are sworn enemies of the tyrant who is currently fighting for his survival. A name like “the Jabhat al-Nusra Command” ‏(denoting a major Sunni extremist group‏) in southern Syria is but a fiction: It cannot be translated into map coordinates at which the Israel Air Force can launch precision munitions.

Against the backdrop of the disappearance of the conventional military threat posed by the Syrian state to Israel, these concerns are worrying the military leadership here. In addition to possible Al-Qaida attacks in the Golan Heights, continuing efforts are being made to smuggle advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. Organization of arms convoys is the target of day-to-day surveillance by Israel. The question has often arisen in the past about whether to authorize another attack, along the lines of the one attributed by the media to the IDF that destroyed a battery of Russian-made SA-17 surface-to-air missiles on the Syria-Lebanon border in late January. So far, Israel has kept the lid on. But a massive attack on convoys bound for Hezbollah, or a decision to take active steps against extreme Sunni squads in the Golan Heights, could thrust Israel deeper into the heart of the war that is underway in Syria.

The problem on the Egyptian border is, in some respects, similar to the situation in the north. Again, a faltering government exists on the other side, which in this case is unable or unwilling to impose its authority on the Bedouin tribes and radical terrorist groups in Sinai. The simplest way for these groups to bypass the barrier now being erected along the border is to fire steep-trajectory rockets − like the Grads that struck Eilat on Wednesday. Indeed, Eilat is a seriously vulnerable target: Any continuous threat to the city is liable to bring a quick halt to the foreign tourism on which it relies, plus the southern city is also difficult to defend. Its geographical layout, adjacent to the border along a narrow, crowded coastline between Jordan and Egypt, is problematic in terms of defense and there is little time between the warning of a palpable threat and the scramble to thwart it.

An Iron Dome battery was installed in Eilat, but it is probably easier to activate such a system in places like Be’er Sheva or Ashkelon. Another possible target for terrorist groups could be the Eilat airport, with its steady traffic of passenger planes.

Moreover, antiaircraft missiles of various types are known to be in Sinai. In one case at least − the terrorist attack in which eight Israeli civilians and soldiers were killed on Route 12 in August 2011 − there was a failed attempt to down an air force helicopter with such missiles.

Bad news in the West Bank

In contrast to Sinai, the West Bank was quiet this week. Palestinian Prisoners Day, which was marked on Wednesday − the day after Israel’s Independence Day − went by without any serious violence and with limited participation in rallies and demonstrations. This was in striking contrast to the numerous

confrontations that erupted in the West Bank two weeks ago, following the death, in an Israeli hospital, of a Palestinian security prisoner from cancer. There was a reason for the quiet this week: Just as the Palestinian Authority leadership encouraged demonstrations earlier in the month, this time it held them back. Detailed directives to this effect were transmitted to the security units and were strictly enforced at the grass-roots level.

The policy shift is also probably related to the renewed effort by the U.S. Administration to kick-start a peace initiative. ‏(On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of a two-year window of opportunity for a political settlement.‏) Another possible context is the clash that flared up between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who announced his resignation on Saturday. In a period of internal instability, both leaders have cause to fear an outbreak of uncontrolled confrontations with the IDF.

The Israeli military, at least, will be sorry to see Fayyad go − if he actually fulfills his decision to quit this time. More than anyone else on the other side, Fayyad, a proud Palestinian patriot, is responsible for the return of the relative quiet to the streets of the West Bank, and for the policy of security coordination that helped reduce greatly the terror threat against Israelis.

Fayyad was also a kind of Palestinian Stanley Fischer, contributing much to the economic stability ‏(and, in previous years, also to significant growth‏) in the West Bank, while also strengthening ties with donor states and international organizations. His departure symbolizes the victory of the old guard in Fatah, which saw him as an obstacle in the way of its ambitions to wield influence − and to the corrupt practices of some of its members.

Fayyad is likely leaving with the thought that the PA is deep into the process of collapse, and an apparent reluctance to be remembered as having been part of the disaster. Another explanation, complementary to the first, holds that Abbas pushed Fayyad to leave, in the belief that the departure of a prime minister hated by Hamas will make it easier for Abbas to dictate a reconciliation agreement to the Gaza leadership, on terms convenient to him.

Whatever the case, both from the Palestinian viewpoint and the Israeli one, this is bad news, whose realization is liable to aggravate even further the sensitive security situation in the West Bank.

The remains of a Grad rocket fired at Eilat in April, 2013.Credit: Courtesy of Israel Police
Chief of Staff Gantz and Defense Minister Ya'alon hold the purse strings to 16 percent of the state budget.Credit: Defense Ministry

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