Israel Launches Operation Protective Edge: A Strategic Assessment #1
Israel’s Iron Dome (anti-rocket) system intercepted most of the rockets that were about to strike populated areas.
2014-07-08 by Friends of Israel Initiative
The Jerusalem “quiet for quiet” approach didn’t finally work. Hamas not only escalated the launching of rockets against Israeli soil (150 last week, more that 80 yesterday, July 7th, alone) but also placed more and more demands in order to consider any ceasefire. Despite all the efforts by Israeli authorities to avoid a military operation, the continuous attacks from Gaza made inevitable a counteraction. Thus, at 1:30am July 8th, the IDF started an aerial offensive under the name of “Protective Edge”. Given Hamas interests in provoking Israeli forces and forcing a wider campaign, it may happens that the clash we are currently seeing would last longer than expected originally by Jerusalem putting Israel once again in the focus of international criticism.
Background and Update
The most recent escalatory round of rocket launching from Gaza started on June 15th shortly after the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer on June 12.
Sporadic rocket launching persisted throughout the period during which Israeli defense authorities conducted the search for the three kidnapped teenagers, whose remains were discovered on June 30. Israeli intelligence sources confirmed that the kidnapping was carried out by Hamas operatives based in Hebron. The Israeli military operation to recover the missing teenagers also targeted Hamas civilian and terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, mainly in the Hebron area.
Meanwhile, the abduction and murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem on July 2nd, led to violent Palestinian protests, mainly in East Jerusalem, which also led to violent demonstrations in several Israeli Arab towns. The swift arrest of six Israeli suspects in perpetrating the brutal murder on June 6th and the broad Israeli condemnation of the crime have restored calm.
The timeline of rockets attacks shows that since the discovery of the remains of the three teenagers, terrorists stepped up rocket launching from Gaza on the South of Israel (July 1: 12 rockets; July 2nd : 10 rockets; July 3rd : over 40 rockets; July 4th : 16 rockets; July 5th : 15 rockets; July 6th : 15 rockets: July 7th: 85 rockets).
Israel’s Iron Dome (anti-rocket) system intercepted most of the rockets that were about to strike populated areas. Consequently, and despite the barrage of more than 220 rockets launched at Israel since June 15, Israeli casualties and physical damage were limited.
Israel’s retaliatory self defense measures throughout this period have been constrained, targeting several terrorist sites in Gaza with minimal civilian casualties. Israeli officials – publicly and through third parties (mainly Egyptian intelligence officials maintaining ties with Hamas political and military leadership) – have repeatedly stated that Israel has no interest in escalation and that “calm will be responded with clam”. On its part, Israel did all in its power to avoid confrontation and escalation.
Media reports claimed on July 4th that the Egyptian intermediaries were about to reach a ceasefire arrangement with Hamas, restoring the understandings of the prior ceasefire following Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012). However, Hamas backtracked, intensified the attacks on Israel and for the first time since Operation Pillar of Defense, claimed full responsibility for the launching of rockets towards Israel on July 7.
Hamas-led barrage of rocket launches on Israel on July 7th exceeded 80 rockets; some 65 rockets were fired within one hour (starting around 8pm local time) and several rockets were launched to a wider range covering not only the South of Israel but also the southern outskirts of Israel’s central region. Earlier on July 7th , seven Hamas operatives were killed when munitions exploded in a concealed makeshift tunnel leading from Gaza to Israeli territory. Hamas spokesperson appeared on Arab media outlets defiantly promising to meet any Israeli counter attack. The Hamas TV station promised Gaza residents that the target is Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Cabinet, convened late on July 7th , ordered the IDF to step up aerial operations against Hamas, direct more ground forces near Gaza, and approved the call-up of 1,500 reservist soldiers, mainly to support IDF Homefront Corps.
In the early hours of July 8th , IDF spokesperson announced that IDF has commenced with “Operation Protective Edge” to stop the terror of rockets indiscriminately launched against Israeli civilians.
Hamas has deliberately decided to escalate the situation despite Israel’s messages that it not only has no interest in escalation, but that it will do all in its power to avoid such escalation.
Noteworthy, the effectiveness of the Iron Dome rocket interception system that has saved many Israeli lives has increased the maneuverability of the Israeli government and allowed it to maintain strategic restraint. However, and despite the minimal Israeli casualty toll (none fatal), no government can sit idle as terrorists step up the launching of rockets currently targeting some 1 million Israelis who have to sleep in shelters. In addition, Hamas has a considerable stockpile of longer range rockets that could target Israel’s central metropolitan area, Tel Aviv.
Israel’s restraint insofar has stemmed from the working assumption that a military operation cannot produce a strategic change on the ground and will likely resort in the reinstatement of existing previous ceasefire understandings. Short of reoccupying Gaza, which is not in the cards, Israel cannot militarily dispose the Hamas government in Gaza. Commencing Operation Protective Edge, IDF has not deployed so far sufficient infantry and armored corps to carry out a major ground offensive. Furthermore, any military operation in Gaza runs the risk of strategic entrapment as operational mistakes in the fog of war could precipitate unintended civilian causalities.
While the Israeli calculus is rather straightforward, understanding the Hamas rationale is ever more difficult as most practitioners and experts assumed until most recently that Hamas too has no interest in escalation.
Hamas and its government in Gaza are facing one of their most serious crises since seizing control of the strip in 2006. With the toppling of the Morsi regime and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas, an offspring of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, lost its theological, political main standard-bearer.
Moreover, the Egyptian military and the newly elected President, Abdel el-Sisi consider the Hamas a collaborator of its domestic arch enemies – the Brotherhood and the al Qaeda affiliate destabilizing the Sinai Peninsula, Ansar Bayit al-Makdas. The latter has perpetrated a series of terrorist attacks primarily targeting the Egyptian military and security apparatus in Sinai and in the Egyptian mainland. Over the past year, Egyptian authorities have clamped down on the Sinai Peninsula, destroyed the tunnels connecting Gaza and Sinai (a major source of revenue of the Hamas government and the primary source of smuggling funds and arms into Gaza), and barely permit the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border crossing.
Hamas has also fallen out with Iran, previously a major sponsor of treasure and munitions, because of the war in Syria. A once major financial donor of the Hamas, the Qatari government is currently less inclined to provide funds. To make things worse for Hamas, Palestinian Authority Chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused in the past two months to pay the salaries of the tens of thousands of the Hamas government officials and security services.
Thus, the socio-economic situation in Gaza is becoming unbearable – even in Gaza standards – with frequent power outages. Israeli intelligence sources assess that Hamas is desperately trying to survive and its control in Gaza is chaotic. The kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers and the defiant response of Abaas to it have wrecked the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, which the Hamas was hoping could salvage their dismal situation.
Consequently, the Hamas political leadership has practically no leverage over the military arm of the organization. The latter has also suffered operational humiliation due to the Israeli detection of the concealed makeshift tunnel leading from Gaza to Israeli territory and the killing of seven of its operatives whom exploded in the tunnel.
While the sense of humiliation and the pursuit of revenge could explain the deliberate escalation, Hamas knows well that it will not be able to attain much, if anything, from Israel beyond the previous ceasefire understandings. In itself, reinstating the understandings could only worsen the position of Hamas as it will do nothing to alleviate the socio-economic crisis. Therefore, Hamas might demand in return for a ceasefire: (a) that Egypt scales down its near blockade on the Gaza border crossing; and (b) that the Palestinian Chairman will resume the transfer of funds to pay salaries of the Hamas government.
Taking all this into consideration, Israel and the Hamas might be facing off a mid-scale and term military operation. The military arm’s humiliation might lead it to launch long-range missiles towards Tel Aviv and beyond. This could force Israel to carry out a more massive military operation, which might include a limited ground component.
Furthermore, if indeed Hamas is seeking concessions from Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, this might prolong the military offensive. In the Egyptian case, it is hard to imagine that the current leadership will agree to relax security measures, perceived as undermining its national security.
Thus, this new round of clashes between Hamas and Israel could persist for several days if not weeks.