Analysis |

Hamas Tries to Dictate New Rules of Game in Gaza, but It May Be Misjudging Israel

The terror group’s aggressive response to an Israeli incursion may have been influenced by Netanyahu’s comments that he is not interested in an escalation

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh shakes hands with Egyptian senior security official Ayman Badie during their meeting in Gaza City October 18, 2018.
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh shakes hands with Egyptian senior security official Ayman Badie during their meeting in Gaza City October 18, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The numbers are staggering: Almost 400 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip since Monday afternoon. Most were directed at communities close to the Gaza border, with a few others aimed at cities in southern Israel.

There was a clear attempt by Hamas and other Palestinian organizations to overwhelm Israel’s defense systems. Iron Dome anti-missile batteries intercepted many of the rockets that were set to land in populated areas. However, a rocket that hit an older building without a fortified space in Ashkelon led to several casualties: One man was killed and two women were seriously wounded.

There was also a serious breach in the Israel Defense Forces’ defensive deployment when an anti-tank missile hit a bus close to the border fence, leaving one Israeli soldier seriously wounded.

The Palestinian response came after a lengthy lull following an IDF special forces op inside the Gaza Strip on Sunday night that went seriously wrong. Seven Palestinians and one Israeli officer were killed in the incident east of Khan Yunis. Hamas did not suffice with selling the story that it had repelled an Israeli incursion and killed a senior special ops officer. It appears the organization wanted to signal that its response to a deep incursion into its territory – and, from its perspective, a violation of its sovereignty – must be a harsher one.

This is an attempt to dictate new rules: Clandestine Israeli operations uncovered in its territory – which the IDF is believed to carry out across other borders as well – will lead to heavy shelling of Israel.

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It’s possible Hamas’ decision to react harshly was influenced by repeated declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he indicated that he is not interested in an escalation. It seems Hamas leaders have been surprised by the limited Israeli response to rocket barrages in recent months. As a result, Palestinian boldness grows from round to round.

However, this line of thinking may soon turn out to be a miscalculation on Hamas’ part. Netanyahu is operating under constraints too. The public and the media are expressing growing concerns about the erosion of Israel’s deterrence with regard to Hamas. That criticism may force the security cabinet to embark on more aggressive responses on Israel’s side as well.

In contrast to previous rounds, it seems Egyptian mediators are finding it difficult to communicate with both sides. As of Tuesday morning, the impression is that the road to a cease-fire is more complicated this time.

However, as previously noted, these serious developments will not necessarily lead to all-out-war like Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The two sides are still showing some restraint in the extent and intensity of their responses. Proof of this comes in the low number of Palestinian casualties resulting from Israeli airstrikes. This indicates that the pilots are operating under strict restrictions in terms of inflicting what is know as “collateral damage,” minimizing risks taken close to population centers and the number of early warnings given before a strike (a procedure known as “roof knocking”). This is a commendable moral choice, but has implications on the Israeli side of the border.

Almost a disaster

The most disturbing incident in the last 24 hours may indicate an operational choice by Hamas not to immediately escalate tensions to the point of outright war. The organization released a video on Tuesday showing its strike on an Israeli bus near the northern Gaza Strip on Monday afternoon. The video clearly shows the bus driver entering an area in which there is no barrier between the bus and the border, giving an open line of fire to an anti-tank missile. A few smaller vehicles are seen around the bus, most of them military ones, with some soldiers next to them.

The missile blew up the bus and seriously wounded a soldier standing nearby. The bus had been bringing reinforcements to the area, with dozens of soldiers disembarking just moments earlier. Even though this is not shown in the video, it’s clear that the Hamas squad was aware of all the details and chose to fire at this time.

Watching the video is chilling but infuriating. With all due caution, it must be stated that this is not how an army at war should be conducting itself. The lessons should have been learned following similar, fatal, mishaps during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and on the Lebanese border when two Israeli soldiers were killed in January 2015.

The army has strict guidelines that are supposed to close off the border area and military assembly points to civilian transportation (other than urgent local traffic). These prohibit travel in unarmored vehicles in areas exposed to direct fire. Moreover, train movement in the area was halted a few hours earlier, precisely due to concerns about enemy fire.

The military doctrine holds that assembly points are moved beyond the range of an enemy’s tactical artillery. In the case of Hamas, this means mortar fire within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) range. Yet this mistake is being repeated, leading to high exposure to mortar fire – or, in this case, anti-tank missile fire as well. This has led to casualties in the past and also led to criticism during Operation Protective Edge. One would expect the IDF to manage its movements in areas close to the border fence more carefully, and this serious mistake demands a thorough investigation.

Mortar fire also appears to be a problem Israel is experiencing difficulties coping with. For several years, the IDF has struggled with such high-trajectory fire along the border and targeting the squads launching it. In contrast to rockets, most mortar launchers are stationary and are not moved from place to place during combat. Their continued fire shows Hamas has come a long way in attempting to compensate for the systematic Israeli attacks on Hamas’ main offensive weapon until now – its attack tunnels.

Another question relates to the nature of the IDF’s offensive ideas. As of Tuesday morning, it was clear that the army had not received a directive to advance its forces and use all the tools at its disposal. It is also clear that Hamas was the party dictating the timing here, with its decision to respond with a massive round of rocket attacks.

Yet the impression is that an Israeli response based on hitting Hamas positions and even high-rise buildings (which Hamas managed to clear of their residents) is not deflecting its leaders from their goals. It seems the new Israeli military parlance, in which the IDF spokesman talks of hitting a “unique terrorist asset,” is not going down well with the Israeli public. It sounds more like bragging (or, alternatively, a real-estate ad).

Even if Israel is seeking a long-term cease-fire, which is obviously preferable to war, there may be no choice but to intensify the military response before things calm down.

Currently, Hamas is broadcasting that it has the upper hand, and Israel’s moves have yet to remind it of the gap in the two sides’ capabilities. This is a troublesome starting point for reaching a long-term cease-fire agreement.

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