Israel's Surprise Assassination Attempt on Deif May Backfire and Strengthen Hamas Resolve

Killing Hamas commanders and military experts has never changed the basic equation when it comes to Israel's battles with the coastal enclave.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, August 19, 2014.
Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, August 19, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

It doesn’t matter whether Hamas fired the rockets that hit the Negev Tuesday evening, or knew who fired them, or was as surprised by the fire as Israel was. Whatever the case, Israel will have a hard time declaring that Operation Protective Edge in Gaza is over. Even if understandings with the Palestinians are reached in Cairo, the concern about rocket fire will remain.

This is a constant and important issue, regardless of the course of events on Tuesday afternoon; but if Hamas' version of the sequence of event is true, it seems that Israel was hoping – it is still unclear whether it was successful – in seizing a rare opportunity to strike Mohammed Deif, Hamas' military chief.

An opportunity – due to the assumption that the cease-fire in Gaza drew Deif out of his underground hiding place for a quick family gathering; and rare – because the opportunity to strike such a high-valued and elusive target, while avoiding massive civilian casualties on both sides, rarely presents itself, especially when Hamas has the initiative and the group's leaders are prepared for such attacks.

Therefore, if the IDF's operational plan was to recreate the sudden assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari, which was the opening blow in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, it only needed two conditions: the breaking of the cease-fire by the Palestinians, which would give Israel a pretext to attack but would take away the blame for renewing rocket fire, and the involvement of other groups, aside from Hamas, in the fire. If Deif was surprised on Tuesday by the assassination attempt against him from the air, it is a sign that he was surprised by the renewed rocket fire at Israel, because while the fire was carried out under his orders, he would have gone back into hiding.

In the past, more than 30 years ago, there were military and diplomatic Israeli officials who were not averse to staging an incident in order to have an excuse to respond to it, with a pre-planned operation. Assuming that the times have changed, that the leading personalities are more cautious and that secrets quickly expose, the so-called "rebellious" Palestinian organizations played in to Israel's hands with the renewal of fire, without informing Hamas in advance so that its leaders would manage to disspear from sight.

From Israel's point of view, the killing of Deif is a valid mission - on condition that they manage to carry it out. If they miss him (or only manage to wound him, again), and kill his family members, the hatred and determination to continue the conflict will only increase. An open question is to what degree does killing Hamas' military top brass means success. Killing commanders and experts like Yahya Abd-al-Latif Ayyash, the Awdallah brothers, Ahmad Yassin and in the end also Jabari didn't change the basic equation. This is not intended to grant Deif immunity - only to emphasize that there is no certainty that without Deif it will be better than it is with him, in the internal power relations in Hamas' leadership and in the policy it sets in relation to Israel.

Only on Sunday, an experienced security official said that the wind had gone out of the sails of the Palestinian fighters. “The hen is still floundering, but it’s already been slaughtered,” he said. He may eventually turn out to be right, but for now such floundering and the bitterness of the southern residents may be enough to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a corner because of the high expectations raised for a meaningful change in the security situation. What two months ago would have been considered a relatively quiet day, with only a rocket or two falling in open areas, will no longer be tolerated, since every rocket challenges Netanyahu’s claims of victory and deterrence.

Netanyahu’s Israel is a status quo power. It seeks to keep all the territories in its hands, all the settlements in place, all the borders calm, and all the voters satisfied. That’s what “quiet in return for quiet” means – mutual abstinence from the use of force, to freeze the situation. This, of course, is diametrically opposed to what Hamas wants. It’s true that Hamas appreciates periods of quiet and utilizes them to strengthen its regime and bolster its rocket and weapons arsenal and its tunnel network. But the bottom line is that calm is not an objective in and of itself, because it contravenes the ideal of resistance and the vow of eternal war against Israel. When a conservative force meets a revolutionary force, the lull in the conflict between them can’t last long.

The Oslo process was essentially an armistice agreement between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. The PLO was recognized as the representative of the Palestinians and was given gradual control of the territories, with the promise of additional portions (but not an independent state – that was the innovation of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, the diplomatic result of Operation Defensive Shield, which was actually considered by two-state opponents as a model for military action.)

In return, Arafat pledged to lay down Fatah’s weapons and fight Hamas and the other Palestinian opponents of Oslo. His violation of this commitment, along with Israel’s violation of the spirit of the process, if not its letter, by continuing settlement activity, is the source of the terror that has waxed and waned here since 1994.

Now Israel expects Hamas to do to the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Resistance Committees, and all groups that oppose reconciliation, what Arafat said he would do to Hamas and only did at his convenience. This won’t happen as long as Israel tries to withhold any achievements from both Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A durable cease-fire requires a diplomatic context and a separation of forces, though in an era of high-trajectory weapons, the value of the latter is limited. Without progress from a cease-fire to a broader arrangement, the situation is guaranteed to deteriorate.

A prosperous Gaza Strip is to Israel’s benefit. Its residents will acquire assets that they would be reluctant to lose. With impetus from the world, the region, Egypt and the Palestinians, a restrained civil society could be created. If Hamas provokes Egypt, it may discover that Israel would agree, and even encourage, an Egyptian operation in Gaza. An Egyptian military government ruled there for 18 years, and it was no more beloved among the locals than the Israel Defense Forces. Older Gazans can still remember it, and if the younger ones have forgotten, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sissi could easily remind them.

It is there, in an Egypt that’s hostile to Hamas but committed to the Palestinians, that solutions to the problems can be found, but it would require creative regional leadership and global support.

For example, Egypt can give, or offer a decades-long lease for, an area south of Gaza to the Palestinians to give them more living space. This is an old idea, but would need different compensation – for example, a similar area of land from Saudi Arabia on the eastern bank of the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia already once adjusted its border with Jordan in a deal that expanded Aqaba in return for a remote piece of land. Such a transaction might be considered as part of an effort to revitalize King Abdullah’s peace initiative.

Another proposal was raised by the Environmental Protection Ministry this month, in a document written by its Marine and Coastal Department and submitted to Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz. It was entitled, “The El-Arish Port – A Solution for Gaza,” and seeks to offer the Palestinians an alternate maritime solution.

Anyone who remembers the sleepy El-Arish, 45-50 kilometers south of Gaza, would be surprised at how it has developed over the past few years, particularly the fishing docks, which have been upgraded to a commercial port. Two years ago, extensive work began to turn it into a deep-water port, similar in character to Ashdod Port. Marine and Coastal Department officials estimate that the work will be completed within three years at a cost of some $2 billion.

Although this port will be competing with Ashdod, it could fulfill the needs of Gaza and the northern Sinai, because there is a reasonable distance between the port and the main destination – no greater than the distance between Ashdod and Jerusalem or Haifa and Tel Aviv.

The physical detachment from Israel and security surveillance provided by the Egyptians would make such an option worthwhile to Israel. What’s more, the El Arish Airport, only 10 kilometers from the port, could also be included in the deal, once again because the distance to Gaza is comparable to that of international airports from their affiliated major cities.

Of course, such an initiative would require diplomatic vision that has been in rather short supply in the Netanyahu government.

A destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on August 19, 2014.Credit: AFP
It is unclear whether Hamas' military leader in Gaza Mohammed Deif was killed in Tuesday night's attack. Credit: AFP

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