Islamic State Draws Heat From Israel - but Not for Long

The world is being somewhat distracted from what’s going on in Gaza, and now Israel is not the only country bombing Islamic extremists. But these are small comforts at best.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Iraqi soldiers from the Abbas Unit fan out into a field in Jurf al Sakhr, 60 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, on August 10, 2014, after they reportedly pushed back Islamic jihadist fighter.
Iraqi soldiers from the Abbas Unit fan out into a field in Jurf al Sakhr, 60 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, on August 10, 2014, after they reportedly pushed back Islamic jihadist fighter.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israeli leadership made a belated attempt at damage control on Sunday, after its baseless assurances about quiet returning to the south left residents of the Gaza border communities greatly disconcerted.

It’s highly possible that Israel didn’t properly assess Hamas’ willingness to absorb yet more blows in order to gain achievements that would justify the damage Gaza has suffered. Hamas’ demand to open the Rafah crossing is crucial, though at this point more for the transfer of goods than for the passage of people. The entry of goods is not just vital to Gaza’s population, but also to Hamas, which charges taxes on them.

The terror group’s demand for a seaport seems far-fetched; even if Israel and Egypt would agree and international oversight could be arranged, building it would take several years. Yet this would be an incredible achievement for Hamas, one that the Palestinian Authority was unable to deliver, and it would free Hamas somewhat from the clutches of Egypt, which could always close the Rafah crossing at will. If Hamas senses that this concession is remotely within reach, it is liable to stubbornly hold out for it, even at the cost of additional fierce Israeli bombardments.

Ever since Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza last week, it has not been displaying any determination in the cease-fire negotiations, but instead is conveying a desire to be done with all this Gaza stuff and return to routine. One also gets the impression that the Israel Defense Forces reduced its troops around Gaza too quickly, so Hamas doesn’t feel any real threat that Israel will reenter the Strip.

Moreover, the messages emerging from Sunday’s cabinet meeting were confusing and clearly uncoordinated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Operation Protective Edge could still last quite a while, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who didn’t bother to attend all the security cabinet meetings during the fighting – called once again to reoccupy Gaza, throw Hamas out and leave. The other side regards such declarations as empty threats.

Under these circumstances, Israel has no choice but to at least plan its next military moves, which are liable to include another confrontation with Hamas, even though it doesn’t want one.

Between Gaza and Iraq

The clashes between Israel and Hamas yielded their place on top of the international and media agenda last week to a new and even more dramatic story – the renewed attacks by the extremist Islamic State organization in northern and central Iraq. The last time the Islamic State seized the world’s headlines was the second week in June, two days before the kidnapping of the three teens in the West Bank, which kick-started the violent summer in Israel and the territories.

This time, the crisis is even more intense – because of the pursuit of the Yazidi minority, the desperate declarations by the Kurds and the Baghdad government, and primarily because of the renewed military involvement of the United States.

The most impressive and worrisome part of the Islamic State’s campaign is its ability to move swiftly over vast swaths of desert and its effective offensives using relatively modest means, including four-wheel drive vehicles, old Russian-made Dushka machine guns, and anti-tank missiles. These were enough for the jihadist organization to collapse the Iraqi government’s control over large areas, penetrate the Kurdish defenses, terrorize minorities of other religions, and, ultimately, drag U.S. President Barack Obama back into the Iraqi theater from which he so wanted to flee.

From the Israeli perspective, there’s some public diplomacy benefit here. The world is being somewhat distracted from what’s going on in Gaza, and now Israel is not the only country bombing Islamic extremists. But these are small comforts at best. Europe, in particular, seems to have gotten fed up with the IDF’s operations in Gaza, even as it declares its understanding for Israel’s right to defend itself. And despite the renewal of rocket fire, even the United States is expecting Israel to come to some long-term agreement with Hamas.

The Islamic State’s progress has no direct or immediate ramifications for Israeli security, but one can’t ignore the indirect effects. Jordan, one of Israel’s closest allies in the region, is in a panic – not just because the Islamic State’s rampages are liable to bring even more refugees banging on its gates, but because they pose a real threat to its borders. To a great extent, Israel sees the border between Jordan and Iraq as its strategic eastern border. In recent months, the world media has reported extensively on the intelligence and military assistance Israel is providing Jordan, so the latter can cope with threats along its borders with Syria and Iraq.

Another indirect effect relates to the situation in Lebanon. Along with its operations in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State recently seized control of the village of Arsal along the Syrian-Lebanese border. The presence of Sunni extremists there forced the Lebanese Army to deploy units along the border to block their progress, and Hezbollah was also forced to make changes in its military positions.

These events, which coincided with Israel’s military operation in Gaza, apparently served to restrain Hezbollah from heating up the northern border. When Lebanon is burning and his men are involved in battling Sunni forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, even Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has no free time for additional wars.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza Border on August 10, 2014 shows IDF soldiers walking past a Merkava tank holding a position along the border.Credit: AFP

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