The latest short, intense flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza appears to have concluded. … So should the latest confrontation be simply filed away as a passing episode in a seemingly endless, if mostly contained conflict?
Not quite. Israel’s central dilemma regarding Hamas-controlled Gaza can be discerned behind Israeli decision making in recent days. Observe:
The latest events mark the clear arrival of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) organization to a primary role in the ongoing conflict. The fighting was triggered by the targeting by Islamic Jihad snipers of IDF personnel on the border area on May 3rd. Two IDF soldiers – a man and a woman – were wounded. The attack took place against the background of a Hamas-organized border demonstration. Israel’s response then led to further Hamas missile and rocket attacks.
The ability of Islamic Jihad to heat up the situation on the border is the subject of concern and close attention in Israel. Islamic Jihad, unlike Hamas, is not a largely independent actor with deep roots in Palestinian society. Rather, it is a purely military organization, which from its formation has been closely aligned with Iran. Its current leader, Ziad Nakhala, is based in Syria and is a frequent visitor to Teheran. The movement takes its direction from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Israeli officials consider that the recent uptick in PIJ activity out of Gaza is part of an Iranian desire to draw Israel into a prolonged operation in Gaza. This would be intended to divert attention from the more crucial front to Israel’s north – in Syria and Lebanon. In that arena, an ongoing, undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran is under way. Iran is seeking to build an infrastructure for future attacks on Israel. Israel is trying to prevent this. Gaza is a mere irritant by comparison.
For Teheran, however, it is a useful irritant. Control and direction of Islamic Jihad is intended to enable Iran to turn the flames in Gaza up or down according to its immediate needs. Israel’s reluctance to be drawn into a long and open-ended campaign in the area should be seen against this larger regional backdrop.
But herein lies the dilemma. The desire to avoid allowing Iran to precipitate a conflagration in Gaza cannot extend to allowing all acts of provocation to pass unanswered. To do so would be to cast away deterrence. If PIJ or Hamas get the impression that attacks on Israel are cost-free, it may be assumed with certainty that they will become routine.
Hence, Israeli planners are faced with the difficult task of responding with sufficient ferocity to deter further acts of aggression, while avoiding a descent into all out war between Israel and Gaza.
The increasing tempo of attacks in recent months indicates that this difficult balance has not yet been achieved.
A second reality underlined by the events of recent days is the absence of support in any part of mainstream Israeli opinion for a major ground operation to destroy the Hamas-led authority there and reoccupy the area.
Criticism of the ceasefire that concluded this latest round of fighting from within Israel – from both within the ruling Likud and the main opposition Blue and White list – focused on what was seen by critics as the failure to extract a sufficient price from the rulers of Gaza before agreeing to a cessation of fire. But no major call was heard for an all out assault on Gaza. This may partly be explained by the great sensitivity in Israel toward military losses. But more importantly, the question of what would replace Hamas as the ruler of Gaza remains without an answer.
Israelis do not want to reoccupy the area. The Ramallah Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, would under no circumstances agree to receive the keys to the area from a victorious IDF which would just have completed a bloody victory over Palestinian forces. On the contrary – the PA would without doubt support any Palestinian resistance to such an IDF campaign.
Voices from the left in Israel in recent days have argued that only the resumption of a negotiating process between Israel and the PA can prevent further rounds of violence between Israel and Gaza. But the desirability of negotiations notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how this logic would apply, given Hamas’s open opposition to any peace process with Israel, the 12 year inability of Palestinian factions to unite, and the PA’s opposition to any IDF armed campaign into Gaza.
Indeed, given the apparent irreconcilability of the positions of Israel and even the Ramallah PA on core issues of the conflict – the Palestinian “right of return,” the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state – from a certain point of view, the current fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement could be seen as a tacit advantage for Israel. That is – if the conflict is anyway insolvable, and is a zero sum game, then a fractured, disunited opposing camp is preferable to a unified one.
This logic, however, only holds if the hostile Hamas entity in Gaza can be deterred, and prevented from carrying out its stated desire to do harm to Israelis. The notion that Hamas could be incentivized by the injection of funds from Qatar has proven erroneous, or deeply problematic. It was a temporary delay in the transfer of a tranche of these funds which caused the Gaza rulers to stand alongside Islamic Jihad in the recent escalation.
In this regard, the only partial success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in this round of fighting should also be noted. Hamas fired 690 projectiles at Israel from Gaza between Saturday May 4 and Monday, May 6. Of these, 35 struck populated areas in Israel. While in strictly military terms this is an indication of relative effectiveness, the deaths of three Israeli civilians as a result of the missiles and the widespread disruption of life means that it falls far short of what Israelis expect of their defense structures.
On a tactical level, one way in which Israel could conceivably seek to raise the price for engaging in violence would be a return to a policy of targeted killings of Islamic Jihad and Hamas fighters.
The killing by the IDF of Hamas operative Hamed al-Khoudary during the last round of hostilities is thus significant. Khoudary was responsible for the distribution of Iranian funds in Gaza to organizations receiving support from Teheran. In killing Khoudary, Israel clearly sought to demonstrate to the rulers of Gaza that it is not willing to continue to act within the tacit rules that have held in recent years.
It will be important now to see if Israel continues with this practice regarding the Hamas rulers of Gaza – precisely as a means of raising the price for violence against Israel, while avoiding a descent into a wider conflict.
So the ongoing contest with Iran, the current absence of a coherent replacement for the existing authority in Gaza, the lack of a desire to reoccupy the area, and the absence of a Palestinian partner make an Israeli campaign to remove the Hamas regime in Gaza unlikely in the immediate future.
Jonathan Spyer is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.
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