Operation Protective Edge

Operation Update and Strategic Assessment #3

As this report is finally edited, PA and Hamas officials are attempting to bridge the differences over the ceasefire agreement with Egyptian interlocutors in Cairo.

2014-07-16 by Friends of Israel Initiative

Operational Update


Over the past few days, Palestinian terrorists led by Hamas have launched at Israel over 100 rockets a day, including long-range rockets that mainly targeted Israel’s south and central coastal region and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. In several incidents, Gaza terrorists fired at further distant targets in the north of Israel and the Jordan Valley. According to official Israeli reports, some 1,000 rockets were fired towards Israel since the onset of Operation Protective Edge.


Into the ninth day of operations, Israeli casualties remain low. The first Israeli fatal casualty was a 37-year old civilian killed on July 15 as mortars fell near the northern crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel (Erez Crossing). Noteworthy, the anti-rocket Iron Dome system cannot detect or intercept short-range mortar fire. At least half of the rockets (mostly mid- and long-range missiles) were launched in coordinated and rather widespread barrages, firing dozens of rockets within 30-to-60 minutes. The anti-rocket Iron Dome system retains its high success rate, intercepting 90·/. of rockets aimed at inhabited areas. Due to the Israeli early warning of the Iron Dome system, day-to-day life in areas 40 km away from the Gaza Strip continues virtually uninterrupted, as it provides civilians 60-90 seconds to reach shelter. Israel’s Homeland Command has issued, and regularly updates, detailed instructions to the civilian population. The considerable adherence of the Israeli public to these instructions, along with maintaining day-to-day life, has denied Hamas of any substantial achievements.


Hamas attempted to stage another “surprise” by airing an improvised UAV from Gaza towards Israel (July 13). A Patriot anti-aircraft missile blew-up the makeshift drone shortly after it entered Israeli airspace.


Israel also experienced on July 13-14 sporadic and inaccurate rocket fire from three additional arenas – from Lebanon, Syria and the Sinai Peninsula. Late on July 13 terrorists in Sinai targeted not only Israel’s southern resort city Eilat, but also fired mortars in the North Sinai town of El Arish killing 7 civilians and one soldier.


Prior and subsequent to the short-lived ceasefire (July 15), which turned out to be a one-sided Israeli pause of hostilities, Israel’s operation against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza has been mostly limited to Air Force strike of pre-determined targets and “hunting” rocket-launching sites and terrorists involved in rocket launching. Israel’s Air Force continues to hold a few hundred attacks a day across the Gaza Strip.


The embedment of the terrorist underground infrastructure among the Gaza civilian population continues to curtail the capacity of the Israeli Air Force to inflict considerable damage to the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas. Since the beginning of the operations, Israel’s Air Force reports that it has struck nearly 800 rocket-launching pads. The operational assessment is that Air Force strikes have hit some 2,000 rockets on the ground in Gaza. Taking into consideration the Israeli assessment that the pre-hostilities’ stockpile ranged at 6,000-7,000 rockets, and that nearly 1,000 rockets were fired, Hamas and the other terrorist groups continue to retain a sizeable inventory of rockets. In so far, there is no public indication as to the status of the Hamas’ self-production capability of rockets.


However, and as assessed in the previous update, Israel’s operations in Gaza are not entirely limited to the Air Force. The mild injury of 4 soldiers of an Israeli Navy SEALs team in an attack on a rocket launching site near Gaza Strip’s northern seacoast (July 13) revealed that Israel is holding undisclosed special-ops into Gaza. As in this case, such small scale operations could target specific locations of rocket launching sites and provide field reconnaissance to locate the maze of underground tunnels across the Gaza Strip.
Despite Israeli efforts to limit civilian casualties, more than 200 people in Gaza were killed; half of the fatal casualties are civilians. Hamas is trying to leverage the Israeli airstrike on the Gaza beachfront on July 16 in which four children were killed. NGOs and media report that the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza is reaching the point of unbearable. The majority of the civilian population experience water, supplies, and electricity shortages. More importantly, civilians are not entitled to seek cover within the huge underground tunnel network inside Gaza Strip, reserved for Hamas terrorists and their leaders.


Not surprisingly therefore, a professional public survey held among Gaza residents in mid-June revealed that more than 70·/. wanted Hamas to comply with the then existing ceasefire. Furthermore, the survey showed that nearly 90·/. of Gaza residents wish to replace the rule of Hamas and re-install the governing structures and institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has also faced a nearly unprecedented backlash in Arab and Palestinian media. While demonstrating empathy to plight of the civilians in Gaza and condemning Israel’s alleged “excessive” use of force, Arab media (especially Egyptian media, but excluding Qatari media) have been critical of Hamas. For instance, one cannot recall an event in which a Palestinian official appeared on Palestinian TV and labeled rocket attacks on Israel as a crime against humanity. There is no evidence however, that the domestic and regional discontent has had an impact on Hamas decision-making.
In sum, and as the intensity and scope of hostilities slowly, but steadily, increase, Israel has not been able to compel Hamas to cease its fire. On the other hand, Israel has effectively denied Hamas of any operational achievement on the ground.


In the meantime, Israel has accepted the UN initiative for a temporary and short ceasefire in Gaza on humanitarian grounds. According to reports, the ceasefire mediated by UN Special Envoy Robert Serry will take place on Thursday, July 17 at 7amGMT-12pmGMT. As this report is finally edited it is unclear whether Hamas and the other terrorist faction will honor the 5-hour ceasefire.


Assessment: The Ceasefire that Failed to Cease Fire

Late on Monday night (July 14), Egyptian foreign ministry announced the details of a ceasefire arrangement that was negotiated with the parties. The arrangement provided that as of 6am GMT on Tuesday July 15, Israel and the Palestinian factions would cease all hostilities and subsequently dispatch authorized negotiators to Cairo to hold talks “for the consolidation of the ceasefire,” essentially, a set of principles governing the ceasefire arrangement.


The events and circumstances that led to the publication of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal remain heatedly disputed. It appears that as in many secret diplomatic exchanges in the Middle East, the number of contrasting versions of events far exceeds the number of interlocutors involved in the exchange. While resolving these contradictions is beyond the scope of this document and the capabilities of its author, it is increasingly apparent that the ceasefire proposal emerged hastily and probably without sufficient preparation. Notwithstanding, and as predicted in the previous update, the basic shortcoming of the initiative was not the manner in which it was formulated. Rather, Egypt’s position as a broker of negotiations became highly problematic. Hamas’ principal demand – to relieve the so-called blockade on Gaza – is addressed towards Egypt, turning Egypt into an interested party in the negotiations, rather than an honest broker (if such really exists). Furthermore, the Egyptian defense establishment considers Hamas an enemy and following the counter-revolution in Egypt, Hamas was outlawed in Egypt due to its close ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt also demands the extradition of salafi terrorists who operated in the Sinai Peninsula and allegedly have sought haven in the Gaza Strip.


At first, Egypt indeed remained reluctant to get involved in brokering an agreement between Hamas and Israel. From its perspective, Israel’s pounding of Hamas was a welcome development. It would take prodding from Quartet Representative Tony Blair to change the Egyptian leader’s position. Blair then also facilitated a phone call between President al-Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu late on Saturday night (July 12) that was the starting point for formulating the ceasefire proposal.


Two other developments prompted the hasty manner in which the Egyptians formulated the ceasefire proposal. First, US media reports opining that had Morsi not been overthrown, he would have been able to reign in Hamas and swiftly secure a ceasefire, infuriated the Egyptian leadership. Secondly, and not unrelated, Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal reached out to his state patrons, Qatar (where he resides) and Turkey, to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza – a move that would have excluded Egypt. At that point, Egyptian leaders realized that their indifference will exact a considerable diplomatic price and harm Egypt’s regional position. Consequently, Egypt moved to set forth the ceasefire proposal as soon as possible.


The details of the ceasefire initiative reflected Egyptian resentment and indifference towards the Hamas conditions. The initiative did not come close to satisfying any of the original Hamas demands. The ceasefire proposal made no reference to the demand to release Hamas operatives released after the Gilad Shalit deal and that Israel re-incarcerated following the mid-June kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. The text did not did refer either to Hamas demand to solve the crisis of bankrolling the salaries of Gaza civil servants who have not received salaries more than two months since the formation of the unity government. Finally, the proposal was vague on which border crossings would be open to the residents of Gaza (to Israel? Egypt?), but stated that it would “be facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.”


Furthermore, and in line with the suggestions raised in the previous update, Hamas officials were infuriated to learn that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt were advancing the idea to deploy PA security forces (instead of Hamas-led Gaza security) to patrol the border and field the border crossings. Some reports have disclosed that Abbas suggested deploying the strongest and most credible Palestinian security force, the Presidential Guard. From an Egyptian point of view, stationing PA security to patrol the border between Gaza and Egypt on the Palestinian side (also known as “Philadelphia Route”) appeared to be their operational definition of “stabilizing” the security situation on the ground. This could also explain the reference in the ceasefire proposal to “confidence building measures”. PA Chairman, Mahmoud Abbas and his foreign minister Riad al-Maliki swiftly endorsed the ceasefire proposal and encouraged Hamas to follow suit.


However, as Hamas officials studied the document, they were soon to realize that not only have they failed to attain any “operational achievement” vis-à-vis Israel, but that the ceasefire proposal, and even more so, the emerging arrangement, is set to further weaken, if not undermine, their position. Overnight and throughout the following morning (July 15), Hamas spokesmen rejected the initiative; one spokesman alleged that it was a document of capitulation akin to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.


Hamas representatives further argued that they were not privy to the pre-negotiations the Egyptians conducted in the run-up to the publication of the ceasefire proposal. This assertion however, seems to be an exaggeration. According to Egyptian sources, they indeed engaged Cairo-based Mussa Abu-Marzuk, Khaled Mashaal’s deputy. While Egyptian interlocutors may not have been fully forthcoming on the details of the proposal, it is telling that as the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the ceasefire proposal on Monday night (July 14), Hamas and the other terrorist factions virtually ceased fire immediately overnight, only to restart rocket launching on Israel in the mid morning of July 15.
For its part, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal did not resolve all the Israeli concerns, although it is rather evident that the proposal was shaped in consultation with Israeli counterparts. What makes it easier for Israel is that from the outset it has not been guided by grandiose ambitions of destructing Hamas. Despite the deepest possible animosity to this violent radical terrorist group, Israel’s working assumption is that the elimination of Hamas rule in Gaza is not in the cards. As reported in the previous assessments, this understanding motivated Israeli reluctance to engage in a military operation vis-à-vis Hamas. It also led to the Israeli signaling to Hamas to stop rocket firing prior to the onset of Operation Protective Edge.


A close reading of Israeli authoritative speakers since the beginning of the operation reveals two set of objectives. In the immediate term, Israel primarily seeks to reinstate and revalidate the pre-existing terms of the 2012 ceasefire arrangement. Israeli officials – on several occasions – have repeatedly stated that “quiet will be responded with quiet”.


In the longer term – Israel seeks to leverage the post-ceasefire indirect negotiations to establish a new set of rules that would prolong the cessation of hostilities and would restore calm for a longer period of time. Over the past few days, Israeli officials have suggested to adapt the “Syria model” to Gaza. That is to say that an international mechanism would oversee the dismantling and removal of the rockets from the Gaza Strip. As desirable as this objective may indeed be, it does not seem realistic.


Alternatively, and in line with the aforementioned proposals concerning the deployment of PA security forces to Gaza, Israel might consider supporting – an arrangement – that will effectively obstruct, if not entirely deny, the capability of Hamas and other terrorist factions to restock their rocket inventory and rebuild and expand the underground tunnel network after the ceasefire. To that end, a robust security presence on both sides of Gaza-Egypt border will be tasked to prevent the smuggling of rockets and munitions into Gaza. It will also take a supervisory mechanism to oversee the import and on the ground utilization of “dual use” materiel (ranging from steel pipes to cement). Israel and Egypt can no longer allow the entering of cement to Gaza that will subsequently be used to build tunnels. Should foreign governments and international organizations wish to rebuild and develop infrastructure in Gaza, they themselves will have to guarantee and oversee the end-use of this materiel. This could be done also through the PA’s security apparatus.


How will the Parties Reach a Ceasefire?


There are two rather straightforward challenges to reach a ceasefire and then negotiate a set of understandings “for the consolidation of the ceasefire”. First and foremost, Hamas is not only discouraged of accepting a ceasefire arrangement along the lines of the current framework as it correctly perceives it as undermining its position; Hamas appears to believe that only through escalation of hostilities with Israel, it can bolster its position.


Hamas’ interest in escalation that essentially means Israel launching a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip stems from its assessment that the incursion will offer Hamas several opportunities:

(a) target and inflict casualties to the Israeli military;
(b) potentially kidnap Israeli servicemen;
(c) exploit military incidents in which local Palestinian civilians will be harmed to tarnish Israel’s image.


These possible contingencies – or any combination of them – would enhance and build support for Hamas locally and regionally across the Arab world. In turn, such events could build pressure on Arab leaders, particularly on the Egyptian leadership, to be more forthcoming and supportive of Hamas’ demands.


For the same reasons, Israel’s leadership remains reluctant to order a ground military incursion into Gaza. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu faced considerable criticism (particularly from his political base) for accepting the ceasefire proposal. There is mounting domestic Israeli pressure on the government to follow through and lend a military blow to Hamas. Insofar, Prime Minister Netanyahu has resisted these pressures and even sacked a deputy minister who spoke out disrespectfully against accepting the ceasefire proposal. For now, Israel is allowing Egypt, the US and Europe to pressure Hamas – directly and indirectly (via Hamas’ regional patrons Qatar and Turkey) – to accept the terms of the ceasefire. However, if these efforts will not yield results by the weekend, the likelihood of an Israeli military incursion will increase. Taking into consideration this possible contingency, the government authorized (July 16) an additional emergency call up for some 8,000 soldiers in addition to the 40,000 called up last week.


It is important to point out however, that the Israeli leadership is sensitive to exposing its armed forces to a possible strategic entrapment. Thus, any Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip will most likely be focused on specific targets (tunnel networks, rocket manufacturing and storage sites), limited in its force structure, and restricted in time (possibly 48 hrs in-and-out). The purpose of any military incursion – and for that matter any military operation including the ongoing airstrikes – is to build pressure on Hamas to yield to a ceasefire agreement along the terms so far stipulated.


The second challenge on the road to a ceasefire is the identity of the ceasefire broker. As discussed above, Egypt’s position in the current situation cannot be defined in terms of an “honest broker”, at least not from a Hamas perspective. There mutual resentment and mistrust place a heavy burden on managing the negotiations. Hamas would probably prefer any other mediator rather than Egypt. However, it realizes that it needs to maintain some level of productive relations with the new regime in Egypt that controls the main supply lines to Gaza. Furthermore, although the objective relative power relations between Egypt and Hamas are extremely asymmetric in Egypt’s favor, Egypt needs Hamas acquiescence to reach an agreement. From an Egyptian perspective, a major role in reaching this agreement is considered a critical test for its regional ambitions and self-prescribed role. Egypt will not allow any other party to fill its position as mediator. Egypt has already officially condemned Qatar for blocking the deal. In short, the balance between Hamas and Egypt is far more complicated than meets the eye.


Although Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, its representative engaged their Egyptian counterparts in an attempt to reformulate the terms of the ceasefire. Furthermore, a Hamas spokesperson was careful not to offend Egypt and told Egyptian media on July 16: “"The outcome of discussions within the internal institutions of the movement was to reject the proposal and therefore, Hamas informed Egypt last night it apologizes for not accepting it."


As this report is finally edited, PA and Hamas officials are attempting to bridge the differences over the ceasefire agreement with Egyptian interlocutors in Cairo. Notwithstanding, Hamas, the offspring of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – seeks amendments that will demonstrate it has not capitulated to the new regime in Egypt. Consequently, Egypt may be inclined to add more direct and specific language to its ceasefire proposal that will appear as tangible gains of Hamas, specifically issues not pertaining directly to Israel – the salary crisis of Gaza civil servants and the opening of the Rafah crossing. Israeli security concerns and domestic pressure practically preclude concessions that bear upon Israeli interest. It remains unclear at this point if the Arab parties currently negotiating in Cairo will be able to overcome their mutual distrust and resentment.


In sum, the currently ongoing negotiations in Cairo have yet to produce a ceasefire arrangement. If the parties will not reach an agreement, the likelihood of escalation increases. In any case, one can expect that the detailed negotiations following the ceasefire will be difficult as the gaps between the parties are considerable and the mistrust between Egypt and Hamas is deep-running. As Egypt will not consent to the involvement of other mediators, it is possible that the Arab League, which is institutionally dominated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will become involved in the negotiations more directly.

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