The Missing Ingredient in Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's War Against Israel

Politicians' embrace of the Israeli army chief blurs lines, raising uncomfortable questions

Amos Harel
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Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
Prime Minister Netanyahu, left, and Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at a news conference on Nov. 12, 2019 announcing the death of senior Islamic Jihad figure Baha Abu al-Ata.
Amos Harel

The two fronts on which the IDF is now focusing its attention, the north and the Gaza Strip, affect each other to some extent. A week before the extensive Israeli attack in Syria, Arab media reported another action that was attributed to Israel: the attempted assassination of the No. 2 man in Islamic Jihad, Akram Ajouri.

According to the reports, apparently Ajouri evaded death only seconds after his colleague Abu al-Ata was killed by a rocket in Gaza. However, it is not clear how or even whether he was wounded in the attack (in which his son was killed) and whether any injury has rendered him inactive.

Ajouri is considered a key person in Islamic Jihad, head of the military wing and the person who was in touch with both Iran and the “internal” activists, the Palestinians in the territories. His status posed a challenge to the new leader of the organization, Ziad al-Nahla, a veteran political activist who was promoted to lead the organization last year in the wake of the severe illness of the previous secretary general, Ramadan Shalah.

The recent round with Israel exposed Islamic Jihad in its weakness. It was revealed to be a less skilled terror organization than Hamas, not particularly professional or compartmentalized, one that found it difficult to operate its command and control system and exposed its people to Israeli strikes while setting up its rocket systems. Probably the removal from action of Abu al-Ata and Ajouri right before the shooting began was a severe blow to their organization’s ability to give orders and assign sectors to the launch cells.

The unusual decision by Hamas not to take part in the exchanges (apart from the firing of two rockets at Be’er Sheva the day after the cease-fire) further reduced Palestinian firepower. The pair of rockets fired at Be’er Sheva were Hamas’ lip service to the resistance, which Israel accepted with a kind of understanding. The counterattack by the air force before dawn on Saturday was only symbolic and did not cause any casualties.

Both in Hamas and Islamic Jihad they now understand that Gaza’s place is relatively marginal on the Arab world’s agenda, in light of the string of bloody crises in other countries. It will take more than one assassination and multiple Israeli bombardments to attract attention again.

During the course of the two days of fighting, Islamic Jihad remained nearly helpless in the face of the IDF’s air and intelligence superiority. The organization chose to head into a cease-fire quickly with the aim of limiting damage and to content itself with bringing Tel Aviv and its environs to a standstill for a number of hours last Tuesday by firing a few rockets.

In retrospect, it emerges that not only non-essential Israeli workers were asked to stay away from the center of the country during those hours; in the rear IDF bases inside Israel commanders were ordered to distance less essential soldiers from the target areas until things settled down.

Kochavi wins bosses’ admiration

The capability the IDF demonstrated in the two rounds in the north and in Gaza strengthened the status of Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi in the view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and new Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett, who had previously known Kochavi only slightly, is full of admiration for the effective functioning of the IDF and the high standard of planning and implementation.

The army, apart from the incident in which eight members of a Palestinian family were killed in Dir al-Balah in a mistaken aerial bombardment, did not make many mistakes. This of course indicates almost nothing about how the IDF will function in a time of real war that also involves ground forces, an extensive call-up of reservists and a far more massive barrage of rockets on the home front.

The less encouraging side of things, which was seen in Netanyahu’s press conferences last week with Kochavi and Shin Bet security services head Nadav Argaman, is the excessive closeness the elected officials impose on the professional ranks in a sensitive and unprecedented period in the political arena. The embrace the General Staff is getting from the politicians is disturbing – and it also raises questions among the public, part of which suspects that the military actions are serving as a platform for convoluted political moves by the prime minister.

Netanyahu has been in a holding action against the double threat facing him from the Kahol Lavan faction and the anticipated decision of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to indict him. And just as he proved this week when he renewed the wild attacks on the Arab Knesset members, in this battle the prime minister is not bothered by legal and moral norms or the rules of proper management.

Kochavi is in urgent need of help from Netanyahu and Bennett, with the aim of unravelling the tangled multi-year plan he formulated upon taking up his position at the beginning of this year. If a miracle happens and despite everything a government is formed during the 21-day period (during which the Knesset can petition to have any member give it a try), the decision about the defense budget will be made in March 2020. If the more likely scenario of a third election in March occurs, the formulation of the budget (upon which Kochavi’s plan is dependent) is liable to take place only by September 2020. In terms of the army, this means nearly two years wasted.

Netanyahu, whose frequent mention of the military threats also serves him politically, declared this week at a gathering of the bloc of right-wing parties that an additional 4 billion shekels a year will be needed for the defense budget, for complex and secret needs he refused to detail. At the Prime Minister’s Office they have been talking about a yearly addition of this amount for a decade now, based on “Vision 2030” that Netanyahu formulated for the IDF. In actuality, though, many more adjustments and improvements will be necessary; otherwise, the army will receive lots of expensive toys, which without an orderly plan linking them coherently will not achieve the necessary results on the battlefield.

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