In recent weeks, the Shin Bet security service uncovered at least three Hamas terror cells in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that were planning to attack Israelis with guns and explosives. The arrests and indictments that followed raised the specter of suicide attacks, shootings and kidnappings.
Taken together with the repeated declarations of senior Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, the group’s intent seems clear: Some leaders want to turn the violent attacks that have been happening in the West Bank since October into a full-blown intifada, which could have far-reaching consequences for the Gaza Strip as well.
To date, Israel and Palestinian Authority security forces have succeeded in scuttling most of Hamas’ schemes. The violence in the West Bank and within Israel continues to be characterized by stabbings and car-ramming attacks. Even the occasional shootings – like the one perpetrated by Nashat Melhem that killed three people in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day – have not been the work of terror organizations, but acts by lone wolf attackers.
If, however, Hamas cells in the West Bank succeed in pulling off a large attack, it could affect what happens on the Gaza border: Israeli security forces on the border have been trying to outwit Hamas, which has resumed digging attack tunnels toward the Israeli border.
In mid-December, Hamas eulogized an operative who had been one of Gilad Shalit’s guards when the Israel Defense Forces soldier was held captive between 2006 and 2011. The man, the organization said, had been killed following the collapse of a tunnel “east of Khan Yunis.” The only thing in Gaza that’s east of Khan Yunis is the Israeli border.
During Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Israel discovered 32 attack tunnels that the Palestinians had dug toward the Israeli border, a third of which penetrated into Israeli territory. The IDF announced that it had succeeded in destroying all of these tunnels, but since the war ended, the digging has resumed. Hamas is investing great efforts and huge sums in the tunnel project. It is reasonable to assume that the number of tunnels crossing under the border is close to that on the eve of Protective Edge.
Is Hamas seeking another military confrontation with Israel? Conventional wisdom says no. Gaza has yet to recover from the war 18 months ago, and tens of thousands of residents still have no permanent roofs over their heads to replace the homes destroyed by Israeli bombing.
But two other scenarios are also possible. The first is that a successful Hamas attack in the West Bank will spur an Israeli response against the group in Gaza, which will lead the parties into a confrontation they don’t really want – in the same way that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank contributed to the escalation in mid-2014. The second is that an Israeli effort to locate and destroy the tunnels will lead the heads of Hamas’ military wing – Mohammed Deif, Marwan Issa and Yahya Sanwar – to stage a preemptive strike, despite the heavy price the Strip is liable to pay.
Sanwar is the primary liaison between Hamas’ political and military wings. He was released from an Israeli prison in October 2011, as part of the deal that freed Shalit. His brother, Mohammed, is a division commander in the military wing and helped plan Shalit’s kidnapping.
Hamas has recently released several video clips from the period when Shalit was kidnapped and held. These videos are aimed at preserving Hamas’ image among Gazans as a “resistance” organization that battles Israel. However, they may also indicate the incredible importance Hamas ascribes to kidnappings as a way to force concessions from Israel. Hamas is liable to attack through a tunnel if it senses that this flagship project is at risk of being uncovered.
There are other factors in the strategic picture that recall the situation in July 2014, on the eve of the last war. The most prominent of these is the extreme pressure Egypt is exerting on the Gaza Strip. Egyptian security forces have flooded a significant number of the smuggling tunnels under Rafah, which has worsened Hamas’ financial situation even further – since its income relied to a great extent on taxing the goods transferred through these tunnels.
Although Israel transfers a large quantity of goods into the Strip every day through the Kerem Shalom crossing, the ban on Gazans entering Israel remains in force. The siege is intensified by Cairo’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing. The crossing is opened, on average, once every two months for two or three days, and only a few thousand people manage to cross each time. And if even six months ago there was still talk in the Israeli security establishment about long-term infrastructure projects in Gaza – from a seaport to an artificial island offshore – all those ideas have been dumped on the orders of Israel’s political leaders.
It’s reasonable to assume that the military wing’s battle concept won validation during the last war, despite Hamas’ limited achievements. The ideas conceived by Deif to bring the war to Israel – by using tunnels, sea commandos and paragliders – proved themselves. The rockets fired at the center of the country are considered an accomplishment by Hamas, and toward the end of Protective Edge the organization identified an Israeli weak spot: the Jewish communities along the Gaza border, and aimed massive mortar fire at them until the cease-fire brought the conflict to a close. All these ideas are still valid.
Will something happen to trigger another confrontation? Israel will have a hard time predicting that in advance.
Even though the intelligence services knew Hamas was planning an operation using tunnels in the summer of 2014, Israel did not translate this knowledge into planning for a broad conflict.
So what is Israel doing about the tunnels? A few months ago, progress was reported on a technological solution for locating tunnels early on that would soon be implemented in the field. The security establishment is keeping the plan’s details secret. But a senior security official told Haaretz that the estimated cost of erecting a new fence around Gaza, which would include a sufficient technological response to the tunnels, would cost at least 2.8 billion shekels ($712.6 million). This huge budget allocation does not appear in the defense budget for 2016, and Defense Ministry officials are already saying that any move to upgrade the Gaza border fence will have to be funded from outside the budget, since otherwise the IDF will not be able to carry out its multiyear plan.
In the latest edition of the Maarachot military magazine, there is an article about the next war in Lebanon, written by Col. Roman Gofman (currently the commander of the Etzion Brigade stationed near Bethlehem). In it, he makes a statement that the editors chose to highlight on the magazine’s cover: “Initiative, along with cunning, courage and audacity, are what will decide the fate of the next campaign. The IDF did not excel in these areas during Operation Protective Edge. We must effect a drastic change.”
The fact that the military is admitting to these gaps, late though it may be, is impressive, as are some of the measures taken since the last round of fighting in Gaza. Still, the basic components of the situation in the south – the continued tunnel digging, the lack of an effective barrier on the border and the tight siege on Gaza – leave open the risk of another round of fighting.