Analysis

Mounting Tensions in Syria and Gaza Throw Israel Into a New State of Emergency

Israel's proactive strategy on both its southern and northern fronts runs the high risk that at some point, something may go wrong

Israeli soldiers walk past an Iron Dome rocket interceptor battery deployed near central Gaza Strip, southern Israel October 31, 2017.
Israeli soldiers walk past an Iron Dome rocket interceptor battery deployed near central Gaza Strip, southern Israel October 31, 2017. AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

While the media is busy reporting on dubious draft laws and disagreement on marking the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the state is sunk in a security emergency that is barely felt by most Israelis.

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On Monday, the army blew up an Islamic Jihad attack tunnel under the border with the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, according to reports from Syria, the air force bombed a Hezbollah weapons factory in central Syria and Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were fired at the planes as they flew over Lebanon. In between, the army canceled a scheduled test of air-raid sirens in central Israel so as not to further fray people’s nerves, but at 3 A.M. on Thursday it accidentally woke up half of greater Tel Aviv with a false alarm.

None of this is really normal, even if we seem to have grown accustomed to these things. The series of strikes in Syria – each one presumably tactically justified – is testing the limits of the Assad regime’s patience. The Syrian ruler, whose bloody success in his country’s civil war has restored his self-confidence, has already implemented a change in policy. Recent Israeli sorties over Lebanese airspace have been met with anti-aircraft fire. And while the Israel Air Force is probably skilled enough to evade the missiles, Israel seems to stretching this rope about as far as it can go.

At some point, something is bound to go wrong, either with an airstrike or with the consequent missile fire. Hence the great caution and sensitivity required in managing the two fronts, north and south. It’s no wonder the top brass wasn’t keen to publicly praise the killing of terrorists, as Education Minister Naftali Bennett urged.

Al-Qassam Brigades' mourners at a militant's funeral, in the Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2017
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Nor is the latest escalation vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip fully behind us. The Palestinians’ resounding silence in the wake of the explosion of the tunnel, in which 14 Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants, including some senior commanders, were killed, was met with a certain amount of surprise. Islamic Jihad may be planning a major terror attack whose prevention requires a longer-term deployment by the Israel Defense Forces, or it may be waiting to exploit a weakness in the army’s defense of the Gaza border. An attempted reprisal could also take place in the West Bank. For now, the army has decided to maintain a high state of alert, although it is barely being felt by the residents of the communities near Gaza (aside from a temporary ban on farmers approaching the border fence).

It’s clear, however, that Hamas has another set of priorities at the moment. At the top it is seeing through the reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority and making the most of the benefits it will bring, such as an easing of the Egyptian closure of the Rafah crossing and the expectation of increased funding from Ramallah. Hamas appears to be more eager for this agreement than the PA, which is advancing cautiously. Meanwhile, the reconciliation has actually led to renewed security coordination between the PA and Israel.

In July, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered ties downgraded over the Temple Mount crisis. But now the PA needs Israel for the daily coordination of the transit of delegations and cabinet ministers between Ramallah and Gaza City. In exchange, Israel secured the PA’s tacit consent to end the crisis and restore high-level contacts.

At the same time, the crisis with Jordan, which grew out of the conflict over the Temple Mount (due to the incident in which a security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Amman killed two Jordanian civilians after he was attacked), continues to fester. Amman is still angry and refuses to take back the Israeli ambassador, who reluctantly had to take part in all the fanfare arranged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon the security guard’s return to Israel.

For years, Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terror organization in Gaza, maintained operative coordination with Hamas. After the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, during which the scope of Hamas’ tunnels project was first exposed, Islamic Jihad also began digging attack tunnels. The first one of these was the one that was blown up this week, only two kilometers from Kibbutz Kissufim. The artificial fuss stirred up by the right over the army spokesman’s supposed apology for killing the terrorist commanders in the tunnel diverted the discussion from the army’s impressive accomplishment.

The approach of fully bringing to bear technological, engineering and intelligence capabilities looks to be paying off, even before the barrier being built along the Gaza border is completed. The main task that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir was to find an answer to the attack tunnels. The strategy that was formulated appears to be the right one. Once completed, the barrier, which is designed to act as a “tunnel guillotine” that will cut the attack tunnels in two, will be added to this. With all of this, Israel is aiming to boost the deterrence factor in regard to the tunnels — to signal to the Gaza leadership that its strategic project is destined to fail, and to the ordinary activists and the people doing the digging that anyone who goes underground can expect to die there.

No illusions about Russia

The most recent airstrike attributed to Israel occurred at the end of the day, during an official visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Iran. The usual question was raised in Israel: What’s the value of coordination with Moscow, if Russia partners with Tehran? Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, says “One day, when the archives are opened, we’ll be able to see what the prime minister did to create a relationship that enables us to work with the Russians in the north. It’s a very concerted effort. I’m under no illusion that we’ll persuade the Russians to change their worldview, but with very hard work, we’ve been able to create a situation in which they understand our interests and our need to operate in the north when these interests are threatened.”

Israel, says Amidror, made a conscious decision not to get dragged into the Syrian civil war. “The thought was that we don’t want to get in the middle of the historic clash between Shi’ites and Sunnis, when we’re the strongest military power in the region and could tilt the scales in the war in Syria.” Now that the Assad regime has restabilized, a new reality is taking shape. “Now we have to very precisely define what our red lines are and be prepared to respond with direct force if these are crossed, while being conscious of the risks.” Asked if such a use of force could lead to a military conflict, Amidror says, “Yes, but the alternative is that we let the Iranians build up an offensive capability that they will use against us at will, from Syria, later on.”

Amidror will be a senior researcher at the new Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, which opens officially on Monday. The think tank’s president is Prof. Efraim Inbar and its heads include missile expert Uzi Rubin and Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, who held senior posts in Military Intelligence. Until recently, this group of scholars was associated with Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (headed by Inbar). It is known for its conservative, right-wing stance on strategic issues. Considering that the right has been in power for much of the past four decades, it’s surprising how little influence right-wing research institutes have had on the thinking in security matters. So the opening of this new institute is a welcome development, also as a counterweight to some degree to the most influential think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, which generally expresses centrist and left-of-center political and security positions.

Amidror says that his and his colleagues’ basic outlook is that, for the foreseeable future, Israel will not be accepted in the Middle East environment. “I expect there to be an ongoing struggle in which we will have much room to maneuver, tactics, diplomatic relationships and also concessions if needed. This is the starting point upon which we must prepare. Will we have to live by the sword forever? I don’t known, but we’ll certainly have to hold onto it forever. I had arguments about this with [Israel’s late President] Shimon Peres, who said to me that where hotels would be located in the Golan Heights was more important than where the IDF would be.

“Israel shouldn’t just keep banging its head against the wall. There are circumstances in which it will have to consider concessions, but without losing touch with reality. Here’s a classic example: In the crisis with Turkey I thought the right thing to do would be to apologize to [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara episode and not keep this as an open wound. I didn’t think an apology would hurt our national dignity, especially after an international committee gave us the stamp of approval to use force and to impose a naval blockade on Gaza. But peace between us and the Palestinians is not the same as Germany and France after World War II. The circumstances are totally different,” Amidror said.

He remains very skeptical about the chances for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, because of the vast gaps between the two sides’ positions. In the same breath, he says he would oppose expanding the area of existing settlements, so as to leave an opening for future negotiations.