Analysis |

Islamic Jihad Has Long-range Rockets. Hamas Has Long-term Goals

And how one decision by the Home Front Command cast a shadow on Israel's military success

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of a comrade in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of a comrade in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The current round of violence in the Gaza Strip started in a different way than usual and ended like all its predecessors. On Wednesday night came the first reports in the Arab media of feverish talks between Egyptian intelligence and Islamic Jihad’s leadership about a truce.

Towards midnight a heavy barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza into Israel’s central plain. A “diplomatic source” in Jerusalem stated that “Jihad is begging for a truce” and it is clear that “quiet will be answered with quiet” (which is to say that Israel wants this too) and the air force embarked on a final, extensive attack in the Gaza Strip, in which this time civilians in the town of Deir al-Balah were also killed.

On Thursday morning it was already clear that after two days of fighting the sides were heading back to the parameters of a truce. As could have been expected, not a whisper came out of Jerusalem. The politicians step out to the forefront only after successful actions by the Israel Defense Forces. They leave the official statements about the fighting to the people in uniform lest, heaven forbid, any stain of defeatism besmirch their suits and ties. It was, therefore, the Home Front Command that issued the instruction to return to routine in the southern part of the country, and then the IDF spokesman, in a telephone briefing to reporters, who in turn informed the Israeli public that the truce had indeed gone into effect. A barrage of five rockets into the south Thursday before noon could be considered part of the braking distance, the period that elapses until stability is achieved, with which we are familiar from previous rounds.

Haaretz WeeklyCredit: Haaretz

However, unlike in most of the other rounds, this time Israel can sum up the events of the past week as a relative success, even if the fulsome praise being heaped on the army now sounds excessive (and is in particular ignoring the fact that this time the IDF was up against the smaller of its two enemies in the Gaza Strip). The amy’s main partner in this outcome was the larger of the Palestinian organizations, Hamas, which for its own reasons decided not to join the battle against Israel this time.

The move by Hamas, which decided not to launch a single rocket even after the deaths of more than 30 Palestinians in air force attacks, is exceptional and important. Hamas, according to Military Intelligence, has for quite some time now been interested in moving in the direction of a prolonged truce with Israel. The elimination of the main trouble-maker, Al-Quds Brigades Commander Baha Abu al-Ata, could now lead to that. However, Israel, which does not negotiate directly with Hamas, will have to fork over the goods: significant easements in the movement of merchandise and people from the Gaza Strip, along with acceleration of large projects for rehabilitating Gaza’s collapsing infrastructures.

As usually happens, Abu al-Ata is winning a certain amount of glorification after his death. Intelligence sources in Israel describe him as a talented terrorist, very active, who never stopped strengthening his organization in the Gaza Strip and planning additional terror attacks. There are contradictory views of the extent of his ties with the Islamic Jihad leadership in Damascus, and through that leadership to Iran. On the one hand, he maintained independence, refused to submit to authority and often took steps contrary to the expectations in Damascus and Tehran. On the other hand, the salaries, raw materials and weaponry mostly came into Gaza from the outside. And in surprising proximity of time, before dawn on Tuesday morning there was an (apparently unsuccessful) attempt on the life of the No. 2 man in the Jihad command, Akram Ajouri.

What is known for certain, though, is that Abu al-Ata was marked in Israel as an obstacle standing in the way of a long-term arrangement in the Gaza Strip. The name given to the operation for his assassination is Black Belt, and its aims were defined thus by the IDF: a harsh blow to Islamic Jihad, creation of a distinction between Jihad and Hamas (by means of the latter’s refraining from joining in the rocket fire), and aspiring to a quick end, while “shaping a different security reality, on the way to a long-term arrangement.” The final authorization for the assassination was given in the cabinet meeting at the beginning of last week.

After that, the military establishment waited for the simultaneous opening of two windows of opportunity: The one has to do with a dip of sorts in the immediate threat of an act of revenge by Iran against Israel, and the other concerned the possibility of striking at the brigade commander at a time when he was not encircled by a tight human cordon. The first window already opened last week because of the increased Iranian engagement with the mass demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon that are threatening to undermine their control of the regimes that are close to Tehran. Abu al-Ata opened the second window, through which came the missile that killed him. He was sleeping in what he thought was a safe house with his wife – and in Israel they decide that the possibility of just one civilian death and the ability to strike at the brigade commander without toppling an entire apartment building justified authorization of the assassination.

The (entirely expected) shock caused by his death, and the absence of help from Hamas, affected the extent of the damage caused by Jihad. Within 48 hours hundreds of rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip but the destruction they caused was relatively marginal and amounted to a few lightly wounded Israelis, some of them from taking falls while running for shelter. At the same time, the Israel Air Force, Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service had substantially improved the ability to hit rocket launcher cells, a weak point for the IDF in the previous rounds of fighting.

By the time of the truce, there were 25 Jihad activists dead, a second blow to the organization. And the whole time, Hamas refused to come to its aid. “From their perspective, Jihad had cooked up the pudding – and could eat it,” as a senior IDF officer remarked. Along with the damage to the launching cells, the army also employed effective cover by the aerial defense system: The Iron Dome batteries were deployed in the south and the center of the country and intercepted approximately 90 percent of the rockets that were about to hit populated areas. And up until the incident in Dir al-Balah, the air force succeeded in keeping Palestinian civilian casualties at a relatively low level. This, despite the fact that most of the attacks came in especially densely populated areas, where Jihad had scattered its military installations and weaponry.

Gush Dan shutdown

Casting a pall to some extent on the IDF’s achievements was a dispute surrounding an unusual step taken Tuesday morning, about three hours after the assassination. On orders of the Home Front Command, schools in Gush Dan (the central Israeli region that includes Tel Aviv) were closed and workers in jobs that are not defined as essential were instructed not to go to work. The decision elicited pertinent criticism – on the part of economists worried about damage to the economy, estimated in the billions – alongside political criticism. On the far right they protested against the national humiliation caused by bringing the center of the country to a standstill due to the assassination of a lone and apparently not especially important terrorist. On the left, including in this newspaper, they explained that Israel is weak and frightened, that it has lost its deterrence vis-a-vis Hamas, that Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah are having a good giggle at our expense – and that all of this, of course, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault.

In fact, Gaza is a train wreck that neither Netanyahu nor his rivals in Kahol Lavan know how to sort out, despite the frequent boastful talk by the rival political camps. The successive governments of Israel – and it is Netanyahu who has headed them during this past decade – have not been looking for a solution for the Gaza Strip, but rather at best have been managing the conflict and hoping somehow to avoid a disaster. The talk about a loss of deterrence vis-a-vis Hamas is exaggerated and ridiculous, exactly like the celebration of the restoration of deterrence vis-a-vis Islamic Jihad in the wake of the assassination.

A near-empty Tel Aviv mall, after the Home Front Command announced that schools and non-essential businesses be shut down due to the escalation in the Gaza Strip, November 12, 2019. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The debate over the shutdown of Gush Dan is more interesting and perhaps also more important. Clarification with a number of sources who were involved in the decision reveals the following picture: During the preparations for the assassination, there was an intention to impose strict rules of conduct in the southern part of the country and to call upon residents of the center only to be on alert. During the morning an assessment was made about a planned imminent massive shooting attack on Gush Dan. This is a critical time of day, because shortly thereafter people begin going to work and students set out for school. The decision had to be taken within a few minutes because later it would not have been possible to make a U-turn and send the parents and the children back home during the morning rush hour.

Most of the construction in Gush Dan is relatively obsolete. Offices and educational institutions lack reinforced spaces for shelters. At the Home Front Command they also took into account that in comparison to Israelis who live adjacent to the Gaza Strip, who are accustomed to missile barrages and know to obey the instructions about taking shelter, the discipline of self-protection in the center of the country is at a considerably lower level. In addition to the fear of the possible casualties, there was the fear that civilian deaths would affect the length of the military operation,. while one of the goals defined by the army was a swift end to the fighting.

In light of these considerations, the professional recommendation was formulated by the head of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, and approved by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Netanyahu. In this weighing of considerations – preserving life versus maintaining routine –- it is possible to understand and accept the decision, despite the economic damage and even though in the end only a few rockets were fired into Gush Dan, all of which were intercepted successfully. Nevertheless, in the Jihad’s calculations, the paralysis of the center of the country could be considered its main achievement, if not the only one.

The relationships between the IDF and some of the regional councils and municipalities in southern Israel and in the central plain were rattled this week. There were office-holders who publicly expressed a lack of trust in the army’s considerations and made their own decisions, actually without having any legal authority to do so, concerning school closings and instructions to stay home from work in light of the security situation. At Central Command, they dismissed these incidents as minor but admitted that they do testify to a broader problem in the future. There is still a huge gap between the army’s awareness of possible risks, especially in a scenario of a war in the north in which damage to the home front would be immeasurably greater, and the public’s expectation that the defense forces will provide nearly hermetic protection in a time of war.

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