Analysis |

Three Reasons Israel Doesn’t Want a War in Gaza Right Now – And, Yes, Iran Is One

The Israeli leadership is sounding bullish about its deterrence factor in Gaza but trying to maintain radio silence over events on the streets of Iran

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A wounded Palestinian demonstrator is evacuated during clashes with Israeli, southern Gaza Strip December 29, 2017.
A wounded Palestinian demonstrator is evacuated during clashes with Israeli, southern Gaza Strip December 29, 2017.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israeli statements about the stability of the Israel Defense Forces’ deterrence with regard to Hamas in the Gaza Strip should be taken with a grain of salt. Deterrence remains effective until that mysterious moment when it stops working – and that usually happens at a time and in a manner that surprises both the leadership and intelligence experts.

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The facts on the ground also raise doubts about the validity of deterrence in Gaza these days. More than 40 rockets and mortars have been fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the space of three and a half weeks – since U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – so even if Hamas is afraid of Israel, it seems that it's not afraid enough. Arrests and torture by Hamas have so far failed to completely stem the rocket fire by Salafi groups and, in a few cases, Islamic Jihad.

Opposition leaders in Israel are taking advantage of the opportunity to bash Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rarely speaks about the situation in Gaza, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has stopped issues threats on the life of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Instead, on Sunday he posted a comic video clip of himself in honor of the Novy God New Year celebrations. But these premier-bashers don’t explain exactly what alternative solution they propose.

Supported by the army and the Shin Bet security service, Netanyahu and Lieberman want to delay a military conflict for as long as possible, and for a number of reasons.

Palestinian demonstrators running for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during clashes at a protest near the border in the southern Gaza Strip, December 29, 2017.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS
A university student attending a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, Iran, December 30, 2017.Credit: /AP

First, they aren’t sure what Israel can achieve through war (and it seems that, contrary to his statements when he was in the opposition, Lieberman is no longer sure a better alternative to Hamas would come to power in the Gaza Strip). Second, they believe construction of the defense barrier to prevent tunnels, and other tunnel-detection methods, will produce results and that such measures should continue without the interruption of a war.

Third, they're aware of the potential harm to Israel’s international image with another war in the heart of a densely populated civilian area. That doesn’t mean fighting in the Strip won’t escalate the moment Israelis are hit by rockets or mortars, but meanwhile it seems the policy of restraint is continuing.

There might be another consideration in the background. On Saturday, Lieberman accused Iran of responsibility for the tension in the Gaza Strip. He mentioned the renewal of ties between Tehran and Hamas' military wing in Gaza, and said the Iranians manufactured the mortars that were fired on Israeli communities on the Gaza border last Friday.

Of course, this isn't the first time Israel has played the Iran card in its PR wars. In fact, even if Tehran is always happy to fan the flames on Israel’s borders, the considerations behind the latest flare-up are mainly internal Palestinian ones, connected to the strategic and economic distress in which Hamas has placed itself.

But there’s another connection between Iran and Gaza – and this actually involves Israeli considerations. Last week, the Iranian leadership encountered the most serious threat to its rule since the failed "green revolution" of 2009. Under these circumstances, Israel has a clear interest in not diverting the world’s attention from Iran’s troubles at home. If the attention of the international media roves from current events in the streets of Tehran and Qom to events on the Gaza border, Israel will lose twice.

No economic miracle

At Netanyahu’s clear and obvious behest, Israel currently is responding minimally to the widespread wave of demonstrations in Iran (though unsurprisingly, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara could not hold back – and the longer the crisis persists, the stronger the likelihood that he will not be alone). Asked to assess developments in Iran in the days and weeks to come, Israeli intelligence officials declined to risk doing so. The Iranian authorities have known in the past how to quell protest both brutally and efficiently. But it's too early to be able to predict with any certainty what direction the new protest will take.

The United States, in unusually fluent tweets by Trump, expressed restrained support for the protesters. It seems Israel would do well to remain strictly outside the Iranian crisis. Possible impact would be nil anyway and, no matter what happens, Tehran will claim it’s all an American-Zionist plot.

From initial reports and analyses, coming both indirectly and directly from Iran, it seems the primary reason for the current outburst is economic. The lifting of sanctions on Iran following the nuclear agreement in July 2015 didn't lead to the restoration of Iran’s economy with the anticipated strength and speed. The combination of a burdensome bureaucracy, government corruption and hesitation by the international community has delayed the economic renaissance Tehran had hoped for.

So far, reports are building of a large number of demonstrations in various cities, with great daring being shown by the participating citizens. There are also reports of the first casualties being shot by Iranian security forces and government attempts to slow down internet traffic, in order to make it more difficult to transmit messages on social media.

All of this recalls 2009, albeit with two differences: First, this is happening after the huge upheaval of the Arab Spring (which at the time was also attributed to a late response to suppression of the green revolution in Iran). Second, the variety of social media, their extent and depth of penetration is greater than in the past, and certainly required greater monitoring by the authorities.

Western media outlets, which have awakened from their Christmas hangover, are not responding with amazement to the news from Iran. But it’s hard to build an intelligent forecast based on some grainy video footage.

There's no doubt that the protesters – who cite Iran’s huge investments in terror and guerrilla groups throughout the Middle East – are touching a sore point. Just two years ago, the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, decided to extract most of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps from Syria and replace them with Shi’ite militias from other countries due to the anger at home over the number of Iran fatalities in the civil war.

The chances of a new Iranian revolution do not seem high. But with the coming of the new year, perhaps we can hope, for a change, for some positive news in the Middle East.

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