Strategic Update and Assessment

The Fourth Day of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge #2

The imminent Israeli decision-making on launching a land offensive into Gaza has also led to the beginning of international diplomatic efforts to prevent the offensive and bring about a cessation of hostilities.

2014-07-12 by Friends of Israel Initiative


Since the onset of Operation Protective Edge, Palestinian terrorists led by Hamas have launched at Israel some 350 rockets, including long-range rockets that targeted the central costal region, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Jerusalem, and Israel’s main Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion International Airport. In two incidents, long-range rockets were launched to the North as far as Caesarea (120km north of Gaza) and Haifa (160km north of Gaza).


Most of the rockets fell in uninhabited areas with minimal physical damage. Insofar, the only Israeli fatal casualty was a 70 year-old woman from who suffered a heart attack while she was rushing for shelter in the middle of the night (June 10). The anti-rocket Iron Dome system successfully intercepted more than 70 rockets that were about to land in inhabited areas, placing its success rate at over 90·/..


Israeli forces thwarted two major Hamas operations into Israeli territories. On July 9, Israeli reconnaissance detected an attempt of five Hamas terrorists to infiltrate the Israeli border through the sea (in a SEALs-like operation) and to attack the residents of an Israeli Kibbutz (Zikim). The five terrorists were engaged by Israeli soldiers on the beachfront and killed there. Later that day, terrorists sought to infiltrate Israel through a tunnel at the southern part of the Gaza Strip, but Israeli forces detected and foiled the attack.


Israel has limited its offensive to Air Force operations striking pre-determined targets and “hunting” rocket-launching sites and terrorists involved in rocket launching. In the first three days of the operation, Israel’s Air Force has attacked 860 targets across the Gaza Strip. In these attacks, more than 90 people were killed in Gaza. Despite unprecedented Israeli precautionary measures, half of the fatal casualties in Gaza are civilians. Given the embedment of the terrorist underground infrastructure among the Gaza civilian population, the Israeli Air Force has not been able to considerably cripple the terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas.


Over the past two years, the Hamas has built a maze of underground tunnels across the Gaza Strip. These tunnels provide a safe haven for Hamas leaders, commanders and terrorists, along with most of the terrorist infrastructure, including rocket manufacturing units. Virtually all the mid- and long-range missiles are stored underground and are elevated to ground level moments before launching. This underground maze is deeply embedded within the civilian population (including backyards, basements, schools, etc.).


Despite its remaining residual and not insignificant operational capability, Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has exposed the vulnerability of Hamas. To be clear, Israel’s military operation has not thwarted Hamas – politically or militarily. However, the list of demands that Hamas has issued reveals the isolation of the organization. As assessed in the previous update, Hamas demands that not only will Israel cease its attacks and release terrorists released after the Gilad Shalit exchange and whom were incarcerated following the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers three weeks ago. Hamas also demands the opening of the Rafah crossing to Egypt and the reinstatement of Palestinian Authority funding of the Hamas Gaza government payroll. Furthermore, the operation in Gaza has yet to stir a strong empathetic response from the Arab world. The isolation of Hamas is well-illustrated by the surprising silence of the once standard-bearer of Hamas, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Only into the third day of the military campaign has Prime Minister Erdogan issued a relatively mild statement warning Israel that normalization between the two countries will not be possible as long as hostilities persist.


In addition, Israeli active defense – both on the ground and in the air (through the Iron Dome system) have negated the Hamas attacks and the Hamas has so far failed to attain any notable “operational achievement”.


Finally, the ability of Hamas to restock its arms and munitions following the operation will be considerably constrained unlike in previous rounds (the 2009 Cast Lead Operation and the 2012 Pillar of Defense Operation). The clamping down of Egyptian security forces on the tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with Sinai has considerably (if not totally) cut off the Hamas’ supply line of munitions. If Israel does not resort to a ground operation, the Hamas might retain independent manufacturing capabilities. However, Hamas will face a limited supply of materiel. This calculation already appears evident in the rocket launching patterns of the Hamas – the lobbing of mid- and long-range missiles from Gaza to Israel has not been as widespread. Hamas appears conscious of retaining a residual stockpile of mid- and long-range missiles.


On its part, Israel has managed the current campaign through aerial operations and attacks. Carrying out on average nearly 300 air raids a day, the intensiveness of aerial attacks is much higher than previous operations. This high intensiveness seeks to compensate for the operational inability of Israel’s military to begin the operation with a surprise military attack (as in the previous operations). Noteworthy, the absence of a surprise opening attack reflects Israel’s restraint and initial reluctance to engage in a military offensive (as reported in the first update). By the time Israel launched the operation, Hamas leaders, commanders, and operatives were all underground.


Furthermore, Israeli national leadership and military commanders have scaled-up the intensity of aerial strikes as they operate under severe international legitimacy constraints (unlike the Hamas and other terrorist groups). Based on previous rounds of military confrontation in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli leaders rightfully presume that the operation has a limited timeframe; at a certain point the international community led by the US and Europe, will weigh in to seek an end to hostilities despite the widespread support for Israel in the early stages of a military operation. In addition, while the Arab world has not shown considerable interest in the events in Gaza so far, the rising toll of casualties in Gaza might force Arab leaders (even if reluctantly) to proactively seek an end to the hostilities.


The time factor is also informing Israeli decision-making on the next phase of the operation, namely the offensive ground operation. Israel is reaching the point of exhausting the added value of aerial attacks in Gaza, especially as long as the vast majority of Hamas operatives and infrastructure remain underground. While Israeli forces have negated the Hamas’ offensive attempts, insofar the aerial operations have not dealt a crippling blow to the Hamas’ operational capabilities. The disruption of the Hamas underground network of tunnels is essential from an Israeli perspective because they include covert routes into Israeli territory allowing for terrorist assaults into Israeli neighboring villages and towns. Thus, the Israeli government will shortly need to face the decision of launching a military land operation into Gaza.


A potential Israeli land operation ranges across two extremes. To comprehensively eradicate the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, Israel would have to deploy a large and extensive military operation into Gaza that would last for several weeks (at least). Such an operation, similar to Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, would include a thorough search and uprooting of terrorists and their infrastructure. Conducting such an operation within the world’s most densely populated area and inhabiting an extremely hostile population would not be an easy undertaking. The Israeli prevailing assessment is that such an operation will bear a considerable price in terms of Israeli military casualties and increase the likelihood of strategic misfortunes leading to considerable civilian casualties in Gaza. Such an event would turn the international community against Israel. Furthermore, if one observes Israel’s military force buildup along the border with Gaza, which according to media reports is lower than during the 2012 Gaza operation, it is rather evident that Israel is not planning such a massive land operation at this point.


Alternatively, Israel might indeed carry out ad-hoc land incursions into the Gaza Strip aimed at “rattling” and exposing the massive maze of tunnel networks that could enable lending them considerable damage. Even ad-hoc land incursions bear not insignificant risks in terms of casualties on both sides and potential international pressure. The more minimalist option would be launching ground surgical attacks carried out by special-operation units. Taking into consideration the operational and international legal limits to aerial strikes against a maze of underground networks, the only way forward to inflict considerable damage to Hamas’ infrastructure would be through a combination of aerial and land operations. Due to the time factor, the decision-making on this is imminent.


To that end, the Israeli military has made public its preparations for a land offensive and has also spread leaflets over the skies of the northern area of the Gaza Strip calling upon the local residents to leave their homes. As no Israeli final decision on launching a land operation has been made public, these measures – military build-up and warning Gaza residents – are, at the very least, serving to increase the pressure on Hamas’ leadership.


The imminent Israeli decision-making on launching a land offensive into Gaza has also led to the beginning of international diplomatic efforts to prevent the offensive and bring about a cessation of hostilities.


The traditional broker between Israel and Hamas, Egypt is rather reluctant to bail out Hamas from an Israeli offensive. The Egyptian leadership will positively view weakening Hamas, an organization it considers an adversary and a threat to Egyptian national security. First and foremost, Hamas is an offspring of the Egyptian Muslim Bortherhood, the arch enemy of the current regime. Egyptian assessments have pointed to the collaboration of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza with salafi jihadist networks in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. This has led the Egyptian authorities to effectively destroy near all the makeshift tunnels connecting Gaza with the Sinai Peninsula. Even the public debate in Egyptian media and social networks reflects an ambivalent duality between the hostility towards Hamas on one hand, and empathy toward the plight of civilians in the Gaza Strip, on the other hand.


To date and according to international media reports, Egyptian intelligence officials have been in touch with their interlocutors on the Hamas side. However, their efforts to end hostilities prior to the launch of Operation Protective Edge were not effective, apparently due to the disarray between the political and military branches of Hamas. As the casualty toll in Gaza increases and the public outcry in Egypt intensifies, Egyptian negotiators might enhance their engagement. However, it is important to recall that Egypt is not only a broker in this situation, but also one of the negotiating parties. Hamas also demands the removal of the Egyptian de-facto blockade on Gaza and the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. So far, Egypt has only agreed to open the crossing to allow the transfer of wounded civilians from Gaza to Egypt for medical treatment.


Recognizing the vacuum created by Egypt’s new positioning vis-à-vis Israel and Hamas, the US has stepped up its involvement in the crisis at the behest of Palestinian President Abbas. US President Obama placed a call late on June 10 to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to reports, President Obama sought to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu not to escalate the conflict and to avoid a land invasion into Gaza. US State Department Spokesperson went on record stating: “Nobody wants to see an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza”. With US National Security Council Middle East Coordinator, Phil Gordon, in Israel, the US is clearly attempting to dissuade Israel from a land offensive. The American pleas to Israel might not prevent an Israeli incursion into Gaza, however they will be a major factor in the imminent decision-making process. At this point, it cannot be ruled out that Israel will seek to work out with the US the parameters for limited surgical land strikes against specific targets in Gaza.


In any case, and at this point, the international diplomatic efforts are at an early stage and the contours for a possible post-Operation arrangement have yet to be drawn. Given the dual position of Egypt, the US has also reached out to Qatar which is home to Hamas Leader Khaled Mashal. However, the control and influence of Mashal in Gaza is unclear because the entire Gaza leadership is underground. A strategic mishap in Gaza leading to significant civilian casualties may intensify regional and international pressure to reach immediately a cessation of hostilities negating Israel’s ability to lend a political and strategic blow to Hamas.


In the absence of an event forcing an immediate cessation of violence, the diplomatic process to end hostilities will take several days at the very least. Initial reports indicate that the Egyptians, Palestinian Authority officials, and Israelis will try to avoid ending the hostilities without some change on the ground that would weaken the Hamas’ hold on Gaza. To that end, the final deal could include measures that reinstall the Palestinian Authorities organs in the Gaza Strip. For instance, Egypt might insist that in return for easing their blockade on Gaza and for the opening of the Rafa crossing, the administration and protection of the crossings would be handed over from the Hamas government to the official security forces of the Palestinian Authority that maintain ongoing cooperation with the Israeli military. In addition, donor countries – international and Arab included – could insist that the rebuilding and operation of civilian infrastructure in Gaza would be managed by the Palestinian Authority officials, rather than the Hamas government. Such measures could further weaken the political position of Hamas and their hold on the residents of Gaza.


In the meantime, Israel appears poised to add a land component to its ongoing military operation – ranging from ad-hoc and mid-sized land incursions with armored forces and supported by tactical aerial attacks to targeted surgical attacks with special-operation forces. The effective carrying-out of such operations crippling the Hamas underground infrastructure could deal a strategic blow to Hamas that would open the door for international diplomatic efforts to create a new set of understandings that might also include measures to weaken the control of Hamas in Gaza.


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