Analysis

Israeli Military Policy: Restraint on Gaza, Resolve on Lebanon and Syria Borders

Decision to restore electricity supply to the Strip is part of Israel's balancing act between its northern and southwestern fronts, between Iran and Hamas

Israeli forces are seen near a border fence between the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights and Syria, November 4, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Israel has been striving mightily to prevent a flare-up in the Gaza Strip, for obvious reasons. One of these is that there is no alternative to the Hamas government. Another is the desire to continue to build the tunnel-thwarting barrier along the border. There are other considerations as well. The main one involves Iranian influence along Israel’s northern border, now at the top of Israel’s strategic agenda.

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On Sunday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz ordered the electricity supply to Gaza restored to its June 2017 level. At the same time, the inner cabinet met at length in Jerusalem to discuss the situation on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. These issues are not unrelated. As a result of the instability along its borders, Israel must constantly manage multiple crises concurrently and consider how developments on one front affect another.

Israel scaled back the power supply to Gaza in June, after the Palestinian Authority slashed its funding for electricity to 25 million shekels ($7.25 million) a month, from 40 million shekels. Neither the political leadership nor the military was thrilled about the PA’s move, but they fell into line with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Palestinians walk past a portable power generator as they shop in the southern Gaza Strip, January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS

Abbas’ indirect pressure on Hamas had an effect: The power supply was cut to just a few hours a day, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the Strip. This was one of the reasons Hamas was prepared to accept the Egyptian Hamas-Fatah reconciliation proposal and to agree, in principle, to the PA resuming civilian control of the Strip.

In the past two months, however, the reconciliation talks deadlocked. Abbas, who is not convinced that he will gain from a rapprochement, refuses to take the reins until Hamas gives the PA control over its militants. Hamas, for its part, means to do no such thing. Meanwhile, winter’s recent arrival has accelerated the deterioration of Gaza’s water and sewage systems while increasing the need for electricity. In addition, in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, small Salafi Muslim militant organizations began firing rockets into Israel’s Negev, and recently Islamic Jihad has joined in.

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Egypt, fearing the loss of control over the situation, began to pressure all of the parties to compromise. Last week Abbas made a U-turn on electricity for the Strip, and on Monday Israel, hoping to pacify the groups that could provoke a military confrontation, increased the power supply to Gaza. Israel is considering additional relief measures, Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported this week, including allowing more goods into the Strip. (As purchasing power in Gaza has diminished, the number of trucks passing through the Kerem Shalom crossing has halved). Israel may also approve infrastructure projects for the Strip, paid for by the Gulf states, Kan reported.

In the north, the Assad regime continues to regain control over areas of Syria, despite counterattacks by Sunni rebels (in which they destroyed a number of Russian jets on the ground, at the Khmeimim air base in northwest Syria). The fiercest battles are near Idlib, in the north, but the regime is preparing to retake areas of southern Syria, near the border with Israel. This month an agreement was reached for the surrender and retreat of rebels in the enclave surrounding the village of Beit Jinn, some 11 kilometers east of the Golan Heights border.

As the Assad regime reconstitutes itself, Iran is beginning to call in its chips from the victory of Damascus. Iranian trucks bring goods, and possibly arms, through the land corridor that Tehran reestablished on Iraqi and Syrian territory, all the way to the Syrian capital. The Iranians are also negotiating with Syrian President Bashar Assad to lease an airport and seaport, to establish bases for Shi’ite militias and obtain permission to station militias in the south, near the Israeli border.

From Israel’s perspective, the most critical questions are about the Iranian arms industry.

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Senior officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have expressed concern about two developments: the replenishment of the Assad regime’s missile arsenal, which was almost entirely used up fighting the rebels, and the establishment of Iranian weapons plants in Syria and Lebanon, which would improve the range and accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets. In the long term, Iran will be able to endanger Israel’s vulnerable civilian population from three separate arenas, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. In the latter, Islamic Jihad and, to a lesser degree, the military wing of Hamas, receive economic assistance from Iran.

Israel had hoped that the protests that erupted in Iran in late December would focus the debate within that country on the enormous sums Tehran spends on terrorism, rather than the needs of the people. But for now it seems the regime has squelched the protests.

In the past two months the Trump administration has tried to convince Jerusalem its fears that, with the Islamic State defeated, the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East, leaving the field open to Russia and Iran. The Pentagon decided to leave nearly 2,000 American soldiers in eastern Syria, in part to constrain Iran’s freedom of action in the land corridor. Defense Secretary James Mattis is leading a stridently anti-Iranian line in the administration, but for now Trump is mainly paying him lip service. On the other hand, under Trump, in contrast to the Obama days, it is hard to imagine Washington intervening to rein in any Israeli movements in the north that Netanyahu deems necessary,