Analysis |

As 2014 Dawns, Israel Keeps a Nervous Eye on Regional Jihadist Groups

Israeli military intelligence analysts warn of more instability and uncertainty, but say that the evolving situation in Iran could offer opportunities as well as danger.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The flare-up during the past week along the border of the Gaza Strip had faded by Wednesday. The rise in the number of losses - first a Palestinian, then an Israeli and then a Palestinian toddler were killed - made it clear to the sides that the situation was liable to lurch out of control. The outgoing year, the quietest experienced by Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than a decade, could have ended with a major deterioration into violence.

This is where Cairo entered the picture. As in previous cases in which tensions rose throughout the year that has passed since Operation Pillar of Defense, the Egyptians sent threatening and unequivocal messages to Hamas to hold its fire. The Egyptian army also issued a statement this week in which it claimed that it had thwarted an attack by a Hamas man from Gaza who planned to detonate a booby-trapped car next to the headquarters of the Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai.

Hamas apparently got the message: As if it weren’t enough that Cairo was accusing the organization of undermining the quiet with Israel, now Hamas was also said to be colluding in the terrorist campaign being waged against Egypt by Sinai-based Islamist organizations. In response to the Egyptian ultimatum, Hamas blocked the activity of the smaller Palestinian groups, one of which was responsible for the sniper attack that killed an Israeli civilian, Salah Abu Latif, on the border of the Strip on Tuesday. Caught between fear of a confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces and, even more, fear of the generals in Cairo, whose decision to block the Rafah tunnels has already caused mortal damage to the Gazan economy - Hamas pulled back.

In November 2012, on the eve of Pillar of Defense, the organization’s leadership misread Israel’s intentions. Its assumption was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was weak and scared, so it was in a position to dictate new rules of the game to the IDF on the Gaza border by means of aggressive activity along the security fence there. Israel responded with a week-long aerial attack, at the start of which Hamas’ chief of staff, Ahmed Jabari, was killed. Pillar of Defense did not have a decisive military outcome, but it appears to have made the Hamas leadership more cautious ever since. In the last two weeks, the IDF discerned a bit less caution on its part along the border, but now the status quo has apparently been restored.

In the background, the West Bank continues to burn, even if the flames are relatively low. This week, another barrier was breached when a bomb was planted in a bus in Bat Yam. There seems to be a shooting incident every few days, against Israeli cars on West Bank roads or during arrests by the IDF of wanted individuals in refugee camps. Data issued by the Shin Bet security service this week show an uptick in the throwing of Molotov cocktails and stones in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This too is a phenomenon that is not to be made light of.

Among the security prisoners whom the Netanyahu government will release next week, as part of the political process with the Palestinian Authority, are perpetrators of attacks that were etched into Israeli consciousness, even though the weapon used was no more than a Molotov cocktail: The murderers of Ofra and Tal Moses, in 1987, and the murderers of Rachel Weiss, her three children and a soldier, David Delarosa, a year later in an attack on a bus near Jericho. In the second case, the firebombs also influenced the outcome of the Knesset election in Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon tried to place the increase in the number of incidents in a wider context: It’s all due to the acceleration in the negotiations with the Palestinians – a process Ya’alon disdains. This is probably not the only cause, however. Intelligence personnel rightly note that the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians recently have not yet assumed a broad popular form, of large demonstrations and incidents occurring simultaneously in a large number of cities and villages, as was the case in the first two intifadas. The next eruption, however, does not need to be an exact replica of its predecessors.

History, Mark Twain observed, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Looking ahead

The Gaza/Hamas dilemma that the Israeli leadership had to deal with this week was neither exceptional nor particularly complex. Netanyahu and Ya’alon thought from the outset that the combination of Egyptian pressure, an Israeli air strike and tough rhetoric would be enough to restore quiet. This could be the pattern in the years ahead: Periodic extinguishing of small fires in multiple arenas, instead of a large-scale war. But a wrongheaded attempt to put out a local blaze bears the potential for sparking a broader flare-up.

In recent years, the General Staff has devoted increasing time to discussing how to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas at the expense of addressing the threat of the Syrian army, which loomed a decade or more ago. Now, the discussions are not only about the more established organizations (Hamas in Gaza is close to being a state entity), but also about many dozens of extreme jihadist groups that operate under the inspiration of Al-Qaida, and sometimes with closer ties to it.

When Israeli intelligence personnel are asked what gave them sleepless nights during the past year, the surprising answer is, above all, the jihadist organizations. When he was director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, often talked about the “Top Five” – the five key dangers that preoccupied him, headed by Iran’s nuclear project and Hezbollah. The list today, however, would be much longer and covers more fronts, including the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

This more widespread threat is relatively new, and Israel is still learning how to deal with it. The collection of information about the organizations and the analysis of their motivations and modes of activity have just begun. Because these groups have no real “address,” in the form of orderly camps or main areas of control, it is difficult to deter them. This development, a significant by-product of the upheaval in the Arab world, is liable to have implications for Israel’s strategic situation in the decade ahead.

Last month, the security cabinet heard an intelligence briefing about what to expect in the coming year. It was the third annual assessment presented to the ministers since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Ahead of 2012, MI spoke of a period of transition in the Middle East, which would be marked by a period of instability and uncertainty. The MI assessment presented to the security cabinet ahead of 2013 was more specific, describing the region as being volatile and mentioning the possibility that the intensity and scale of events might force Israel out of its bystander stance, spill over into Israel proper and even oblige action at certain points. (If we take as credible the leaks from Washington about at least six Israeli air strikes against Syria in the past year, that forecast seems to have been fulfilled.)

MI referred to four major causes of conflict a year ago: The Iranian nuclear project, the civil war in Syria, the upheaval in Egypt and the unrest across the entire Middle East. All of these indeed exercised a certain influence on Israel, but apart from the attacks on the weapons in Syria there was little Israeli activity.

This year, the ministers had a hard time getting an analysis from MI that would embrace all the processes under way in the region. The first half of 2014 is likely to be marked by a “dynamics of arrangements”: Efforts to resolve, or at least tone down, the crises related to the Iranian nuclear project (the Geneva agreement), the war in Syria (the international conference scheduled to be held in Switzerland next month) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the Kerry initiative, in the wake of which the sides embarked on nine months of negotiations on a final-status settlement). The picture might become clearer toward this coming spring, but the prospects for agreements in the three channels don’t look high. In the Iranian case, MI believes there is little chance of a permanent agreement being reached within six months. A series of extensions might be necessary for the interim agreement, with the aim of averting a clash.

Thinking positive

The green wave of Islam, which characterized the Arab upheaval from its start, was reversed in 2013, when the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria managed to recover and prevent its overthrow by rebels and when the generals in Egypt staged a military coup in Cairo. Opportunities have now been created for Israel to coordinate strategic postures with Egypt and Jordan, and apparently also – in a channel about which Israeli spokesmen don’t speak in public – with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.

Intelligence specializes in presenting threats, but the forecast for 2014 also contains some positive developments – first and foremost in Syria. The chemical weapons stocks there have been almost completely dismantled, even though Israel suspects that the Assad regime is deceiving the international community and leaving itself a small chemical reserve for any possible contingency. The Syrian army’s conventional capability has also been eroded. Many of its units have been seriously damaged in the fighting with the rebels, and the army has used almost half of its arsenal of rockets and missiles, which was originally created to be used against Israel.

Syria is continuing to fall apart, with forces that oppose the regime now in control of nearly half the country, in the north and the east. But the Assad regime continues to cling to the cities that are important to its survival and maintains a fairly wide corridor that includes the Alawite cities in the northwest of the country, as well as Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the southern city of Daraa. Last March, Assad seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but was able to recover thanks to massive aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Since the victory organized for Assad in June by Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border, the fighting has become static, with no thrust of momentum or victory by either side. Presently, the opposition looks too weak and divided to topple the regime in the near future.

All the signs are that the upheaval in the Arab world will continue into 2014. The worsening economic situation – which the violence has only aggravated – will likely push more young people into the arms of the jihadist organizations, which will increasingly also clash with Israel on the margins of their main activity.

As for Iran, intelligence discerns a genuine struggle over the future image of the country between the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies, and a more moderate group headed by the new president, Hassan Rohani. Expert analysis does not view Rohani’s election as a deception by Khamenei intended solely to mislead the West, but rather as an authentic leader who is creating an independent power center. The internal struggle between the blocs in Iran has yet to be resolved, but Rohani enjoys broad public support, despite the clout of the Revolutionary Guards and the senior army officers who are loyal to the spiritual leader.

Haaretz reported in September that on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the head of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, provided him with an assessment holding that a deep strategic change was being played out in Iran, expressed in Rohani’s election victory in June.

Kochavi appears to be sticking to this opinion. Earlier this month, he presided over a ceremony at which prizes for creative thinking were awarded to intelligence officers. According to a report on Israel Radio, a group of officers from the research division who “identified the change in Iran” received a special certificate of appreciation from Kochavi. Officially, senior Israeli figures such as Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scoffing at the change in Tehran and saying that Rohani’s “charm offensive” is simply a mask assumed by the regime solely in order to get relief from the international sanctions. It turns out that MI, without for a moment detracting from the dangers of Iran’s nuclear project and its support for terrorism, thinks otherwise.

An IDF tank near the southern border with the Gaza Strip.Credit: AFP

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