ANALYSIS: Israel changes the rules of the game
The IDF continued its aerial attacks on the Gaza Strip Wednesday night in an effort to stop rocket fire on Israeli communities and target Hamas operatives.
Israel’s actions on Wednesday went a long way toward restoring the deterrence lost during the most recent escalation. The assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing, and the equally important targeting of Hamas’ long-range rocket caches, stunned the Islamic organization. It was reminded once again of the adversary it is up against and what the real balance of power is.
But whether Operation Pillar of Defense turns out to be a success ultimately depends on how the next few days unfold. Will Israel be able to hold onto its early gains? Will it avoid a military and diplomatic entanglement in the Gaza Strip? Will the operation help usher in a new modus vivendi that allows the residents of the south to lead their lives peacefully?
Israel’s decision to carry out the assassination underscores a realization that Hamas, under Jabari’s leadership, changed its modus operandi by taking an active role in terrorist attacks, effectively abandoning its long-held policy of restraint. This was evident is the repeated rocket launches against the communities near the Gaza Strip and its stepped-up attacks against IDF troops patrolling the border fence and combating its tunneling activity.
Hamas’ audacity reached a new high on Saturday, when it fired an antitank missile on Givati troops near the Gaza security fence, wounding four. This proved Hamas was no longer going to shy away from an escalation.
The massive salvos on Sderot and Hamas’ half-hearted efforts to ensure other terrorist groups abide by the cease-fire that has been in place since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 were an indication that the ruler of the Gaza Strip was now running the show and was leading the terrorist campaign against Israel. Israel knew full well that if it let the recent violations slide it would invite a new, more painful round of hostilities in the near future.
The response came on Wednesday, after a few days of stormy weather that prevented action. In hindsight, the unfavorable weather conditions played into Israel’s hands. On the one hand, the government’s inaction elicited scathing criticism for forsaking the residents of the south, but it bought Israeli leaders some time to put on a show that convinced Hamas that the latest round was drawing to a close. Hamas let its guard down, expecting calm, and allowed its leaders to come out of hiding. This provided an opening to Israel to make its move and embark on its campaign.
The decision to allow trucks to flow into the Gaza Strip with goods on Wednesday was also designed to create a false impression of calm. Another layer of deception was added when the Israeli media showed the prime minister and defense minister touring the north. Other politicians also played along, stating that a military operation was unlikely. This added to Hamas’ sense of complacency.
A top-down attack
The Jabari assassination was greenlighted by the Forum of Nine (comprising the prime minister and other top ministers) on Wednesday. Israel opted to begin the campaign with a top-down attack focusing on Hamas’ higher-ups, knowing that an incremental campaign would allow Jabari and the other leaders to lie low (as was the case in Operation Cast Lead), which would make their assassination unfeasible.
In Wednesday’s Forum of Nine meeting, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF predicted that Hamas would try to retaliate by firing rockets on Tel Aviv, a strategic tit-for-tat that would change the rules of the game. The IDF was thus given the go-ahead to take out all the long-range rockets and rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip.
The two-pronged campaign was run simultaneously from the IDF and Shin Bet headquarters. The IDF, from its underground bunker at the General Staff Headquarters (the Kirya), was tasked with targeting the rocket disposition; the Shin Bet’s operations center was in charge of the assassination.
The IDF had in its target repository an elaborate file on the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, which have ranges of up to 75 kilometers (46 miles). The Israel Air Force used the coordinates in these files to carry out precision strikes on the bunkers where they had been stored as well as on other caches and launching sites. As in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which began with Israel destroying Hezbollah’s long-range rockets, the most pressing objective was to deny Hamas (and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) the ability to disrupt the lives of those in the greater Tel Aviv area and central Israel by means of long-range rockets.
IDF officials were careful on Wednesday not to declare Hamas’ long-range rocket apparatus as having been destroyed, lest they be embarrassed by a successful launch. The Israel Navy and Israel Air Force, having learned the lessons of Hezbollah’s surprise attack on the INS Hanit in 2006 by means of a coastal missile, stepped up security to prepare for Hamas surprises down the road.
Jabari’s death stunned Hamas and put it on the defensive. Over the past several years, Jabari had become the dominant figure in the organization, the Gaza Strip’s all-powerful wheeler and dealer. He was seared into the collective minds of Israelis as the one who masterminded the abduction of Gilad Schalit in the 2006 cross-border raid (and who later handled his release in the prisoner exchange). Israel’s security officials considered him a sophisticated and bitter enemy.
Under his leadership, Hamas assembled a military force that was organized, trained and equipped. This has increasingly become a challenge for the IDF. Jabari was to Hamas what Imad Mughniyeh was to Hezbollah — the linchpin that holds together all the organization’s military infrastructure. No one in the Israeli decision-making apparatus was under any illusion that Hamas would let this assassination slide. They nevertheless gave it the go-ahead, knowing full well that after the initial shock subsided, Hamas would retaliate forcefully.
The fact that Hamas did not pursue a large-scale retaliation in the immediate aftermath of the assassination is a result of the state of confusion in the Gaza Strip in the first few hours. The Israel Air Force’s highly effective shield over the Gaza Strip also effectively nipped much of the rocket-launching activity in its bud. That said, the discussions concluded on Wednesday with policymakers bracing for a “tough battle” on Thursday.
That is why Israel’s southern communities were instructed to prepare for many hits. Schools were closed; the first-responder apparatus and the IDF Homefront Command were sent reinforcements; anti-rocket Iron Dome batteries were deployed in a way that could provide maximum protection for residents and strategic sites.
The IDF also deployed more infantry troops to the Gaza Strip, as well as armored combat units that largely comprised Merkava Mark IV tanks fitted with Rafael’s Trophy active protection system that effectively neutralizes the threat of antitank missiles. But for all the preparations, as of Wednesday night, Israel still had no intention of waging a ground campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The troop deployment was meant to render such a contingency a viable option should things deteriorate, but it was chiefly designed to shore up deterrence. Israel hopes that international pressure would help limit the scope of the campaign and render a ground campaign unnecessary. A ground war has both military and political pitfalls that Israel seeks to avoid.
The goal: a short campaign
Over the past several days Western officials have tried to dissuade Israel from realizing its threat to attack hard. Egypt has even hinted it would resort to strong measures if Israel was to trigger an escalation. All the while Cairo has found it increasingly difficult to restrain Hamas.
Security officials assessed prior to the assassination that Egypt would temporarily recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv. This prediction proved accurate, although Cairo has so far stopped short of any additional action. This could change should Israel engage in a protracted and massive campaign that results in a large number of civilian casualties.
The officials further stressed that Egypt has a unique role to play when it comes to preventing such a scenario from materializing if it manages to use its ties and clout in the Gaza Strip to bring about a cease-fire. Avoiding a quagmire is a chief concern of the political echelons, and they have communicated that to the military’s top brass through their operational directives.
The goal of the campaign is to change the rules of the game. Namely, to deter Hamas and the other terrorist groups and to restore calm (“normalcy”) to the southern communities. Another, secondary, goal is to kill the so-called high-value targets and compromise the terrorists’ fire power, primarily by means of targeting strategic weapon systems.
The military was also instructed to take special precautions to avoid hurting noncombatants and to ensure its actions don’t further undermine Israel’s legitimacy abroad. The IDF’s task is to create favorable endgame scenarios that would allow the campaign to meet its objectives as quickly as possible.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to a lesser extent to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Jabari assassination could be what the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was to President Barack Obama in 2011. A successful operation and a sense of calm in the south could significantly boost Netanyahu’s standing at the height of a re-election campaign that has been temporarily suspended.
On the other hand, if the Gaza Strip campaign turns ugly or is perceived as a failure, Jabari’s death could hurt Netanyahu’s electoral chances, just as in the February-March 1996 wave of suicide bombings, when Hamas took revenge for the killing of the Hamas explosives expert (the “engineer”) Yahya Ayyash, contributed to then Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ defeat in the polls.
But apart from any political implications that the campaign may have, Operation Pillar of Defense may be critical when it comes to the security in the south for some time to come: When the dust settles, there should be no doubt as to who won and who lost; who established deterrence and who has been deterred.