Netanyahu Has No Plans to Topple Hamas, Despite Discovery of Cross-border Gaza Tunnel

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The Israel Defense Forces looking for new tunnels at Nahal Oz, near the border with the Gaza Strip, April 18, 2016.
The Israel Defense Forces looking for new tunnels at Nahal Oz, near the border with the Gaza Strip, April 18, 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Despite the aggressive tone adopted by Israeli officials this week, Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip remains unchanged. The combative statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and senior Israel Defense Forces officers all lacked one element: Any threat of immediate military action in response to the discovery of a cross-border tunnel from Gaza into Israel. The government still wants the IDF to maintain quiet along the Gaza border for as long as possible.

Jerusalem would be happy to stave off the next military conflict with Hamas for at least a year. Netanyahu has no plans to topple Gaza’s Hamas government and doesn’t appear to have any intention of starting any military action in Gaza. He and Ya’alon still believe Hamas is deterred and weakened, and that the other alternatives in Gaza are even worse (anarchy or rule by an Islamic State affiliate,) or else unachievable (the Palestinian Authority regaining control.)

But the tunnel’s discovery exposed Netanyahu to attacks from both right and left. He was accused of ignoring a violation of Israeli sovereignty, of failing to protect Israelis living near Gaza from the danger posed by such tunnels, and of failing to keep the promises he made after the last war with Hamas in summer 2014 – that all its attack tunnels had been destroyed, and that Israel wouldn’t allow new ones to be dug under its territory. The fact that Hamas has resumed digging tunnels – and that more than one have apparently already crossed the border into Israel – casts doubt on the credibility of Netanyahu’s past statements.

In response to his latest political woe, Netanyahu played a card of proven efficacy: Jewish genius. What the defense minister phrased more cautiously, the prime minister stated as a certainty. Israel, he said on Monday, is the first country in the world to develop a breakthrough technology that will provide an answer to the threat of terror tunnels.

The defense establishment said the tunnel was detected about two weeks ago with the aid of the new technology. At his briefing for diplomatic reporters on Monday, Netanyahu termed this technology a “very significant change in our ability to locate tunnels.” Ya’alon, speaking that same day in the Sdot Negev Regional Council, near the Gaza border, said the defense establishment had been waiting for all the elements of the system to come together “and start working full blast, and we’re already there.”

But even though the tunnel near Kibbutz Holit was discovered with the help of the new technology, Netanyahu’s announcement of an imminent solution to the tunnel problem seems to be an exaggeration. It isn’t yet “an underground Iron Dome,” as Netanyahu called it. The system’s ability to survey the entire border area and uncover tunnels that have been completed stillremains to be proven.

The IDF’s assessment is that installing the tunnel detection system along the entire length of the Israel-Gaza border will take two years. Moreover, the Defense Ministry says the proposed new border barrier, which will include an aboveground fence and tunnel detection technology below, will cost at least 2.7 billion shekels ($720 million). Netanyahu said Israel will invest as much as needed in the project, but, in practice, the Finance Ministry hasn’t yet approved this funding.

If Israel wants prolonged quiet with Hamas, there are other things it will have to consider doing in addition to locating tunnels and preparing the army for a possible war. One of the most urgent is improving living conditions in Gaza, an idea for which even ministers on the far right have recently voiced support. But efforts to do so are proceeding lackadaisically, at best, as if Israel had all the time in the world and Gaza wasn’t liable to explode for reasons having no direct connection to the tunnels.

A stabbing ambition

Shatila Abu Iyada, the Israeli Arab from Kafr Qasem who stabbed and wounded an Israeli woman in Rosh Ha’ayin’s industrial zone in early April, had more ambitious plans. The indictment filed against her on Sunday said she had learned how to make bombs from the Internet and planned to place a bomb in the industrial zone, even visiting several restaurants to plan the attack. But her efforts to make a bomb failed, as did her efforts to obtain a gun, so she resorted to a stabbing.

Abu Iyada’s case is not exceptional. Many indictments filed in recent years have described attempts, sometimes more successful, to build bombs using instructions found on the Internet.

Based on the initial investigation of Monday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem, whose findings have been placed under a gag order, it seems this was a similar incident. The relatively small number of casualties and the limited damage done to the bus don’t resemble the days of the second intifada. So far, there’s no evidence that Hamas has trained a deadly bomb-maker in the West Bank or East Jerusalem like those whose bombs killed hundreds of Israelis back then.

Most of those bomb-makers were either assassinated by Israel or remain in Israeli jails, aside from a few who were released and deported to Gaza under the 2011 prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. In recent years, a joint effort against Hamas networks in the West Bank by Israeli and Palestinian Authority security services has uncovered several cells in the initial stages of preparing bombs. The Shin Bet security service has vast experience in locating such cells, which require the involvement of several people and relatively precise planning.

For the last few months, Israel has mainly been busy dealing with lone wolves – people like Abu Iyada, who act on their own, rather than as part of an organized, hierarchical network. Israeli intelligence has recently improved its methods for monitoring Palestinian social media, and early identification of young people who seek to carry out attacks has produced more arrests before an attack occurs. The combination of this improved monitoring and preventive activity by the PA security services is apparently the main reason for the drop in the number of attacks in recent months.

The Jerusalem bombing worries the defense establishment for two reasons. One is the symbolic success of replicating the iconic image of the second intifada, the picture of a burning bus. Within a day, Hamas had already spread this picture all over the Internet.

The second relates to the timing: It happened after weeks of relative quiet, and shortly before the Pesach holiday. Tension was expected during the week-long holiday, when organizations calling for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount increase their activity, many Jews visit the Mount and Palestinians call for activity to disrupt such visits. The field is now especially sensitive to provocations from either side, and the casualties from Monday’s bombing only increase the risk of a downward spiral.

Against this background, the Israeli leadership has taken several steps to calm the situation. President Reuven Rivlin organized a conference of Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics, who called for calm; Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich announced that he would continue to bar Knesset members from the Mount; and senior Israeli officials promised King Abdullah of Jordan that they would maintain quiet on the Mount and throughout Jerusalem.

Amman this week took a step backward when it froze a plan to install Jordanian cameras on the Temple Mount because the Palestinians objected. The Jordanians evidently want to wait and see if the escalation in Jerusalem resumes before they decide whether to risk a conflict with the PA in order to film a Temple Mount reality show. For now, the situation seems to be hot enough even without the cameras.