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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Israel’s difficult Gaza choices

Key Points

  • The ending of the tahdiyeh (lull) ushers in a period of uncertainty. Despite the inherent tension of Israel-Hamas relations, Israel has no desire to carry out a large-scale operation into Gaza. Major escalation in the Strip could be avoided if Hamas refrained from launching rockets at Israeli civilians. It is Hamas’s unwillingness to do this which has brought the lull to an end.
  • Israeli policymakers are aware that there is no simple military solution to the problem of Hamas, and its lawless regime in Gaza. While the IDF could reoccupy Gaza, there is no clear exit strategy, and no guarantee that a major military operation will stop the rocket fire.
  • Hamas wants an improved ceasefire agreement, and also does not seek an all out conflict, since it wishes to remain in power in Gaza.  But it may be that its demands – such as the opening of the crossings, including the Egyptian controlled Rafah Crossing – and the extension of the lull to the West Bank, will be in excess of what Israel and Egypt can accept.
  • The belief within Hamas that Israeli society is feeble and fatigued and does not have the stomach for a large scale operation may cause it to mis-calculate the amount of aggression Israel is willing to absorb without responding. Should this prove the case, and should the rocket fire increase, then Israeli ground operations into Gaza will become an inevitability. 

Introduction

On Thursday December 18, the Hamas rulers of Gaza decided unilaterally not to renew the ‘tahdiyeh’ (lull) between Gaza and Israel. Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza are currently mobilizing fighters and movement leaders are going into hiding.  Israel continues to be interested in a renewed lull.  However, the Hamas decision brings the possibility of renewed open conflict between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Israel back onto the agenda.  This document will look into the reasons why the lull was not renewed, and will analyse the options and dilemmas currently faced by Israeli decision-makers.

Why did the lull fail?

While neither side has a desire for all-out conflict, there is an inherent instability in the relationship between Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza. This derives from Hamas’s rejection of the Quartet principles and the possibility of peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis. The lull between Hamas-ruled Gaza was, in addition, never complete. Qassam rockets were launched sporadically by Palestinian terror groups on a number of occasions in the course of its six month duration.  However, the lull did see a massive decline in rocket launching until November, and efforts by Hamas to rein in other organizations, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. 

The major deterioration began after November 4, when IDF forces acted to prevent the completion of a tunnel being built by Hamas between Gaza and Israel, which was intended to be used in a kidnap of Israeli soldiers. The digging of the tunnel was part of a much broader preparation by Hamas for renewed conflict which has been going on since the first days of the ceasefire. However, the existence of the tunnel would have constituted a clear and present danger to Israeli forces serving near Gaza, and hence the decision was made to act to prevent its completion. It is worth noting that Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in a Hamas operation in which its members crossed from Gaza into Israel by way of a tunnel of this type.

Hamas responded by recommencing large scale rocket fire on the communities of the western Negev. The IDF has limited its military response to targeting Palestinian militants involved in launching rockets. Israel also increased sanctions by closing crossing points with Gaza in response to rocket fire.[1]

As the date for the expiry of the ceasefire approached, it became clear that the dynamic of events was militating against its renewal. Hamas demanded that Israel open the crossings that had been closed as a result of the rocket fire. The movement also reiterated its demand that the ceasefire be extended to include the West Bank. As the movement was aware, there was no prospect whatsoever of Israel agreeing to this demand, which would have meant giving Hamas free rein to organize and prepare in the West Bank, at a time when joint Israeli and PA efforts against terror infrastructures in this area are bearing fruit.

For a period of time, there were reports of splits within Hamas itself regarding the renewal of the ceasefire, with the Gaza leadership understood to be more keen to see the ceasefire renewed in order to remove any danger to their continued rule.  The overall Hamas leadership, based in Damascus, was apparently more inclined to allow the ceasefire to come to an end.  In the final approach to the ceasefire’s expiry date, however, the movement united around a set of demands for ‘improvements’ to the ceasefire, which would have represented an effective Israeli capitulation. As a result, at 6.00am on Friday, the Izz a din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing. announced that the ceasefire would not be renewed.[2]

The ending of the ceasefire ushers in a period of uncertainty. Israel has no desire to carry out a large-scale operation into Gaza. Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 in a process that involved dismantling settlements and was traumatic for Israeli society. Israel has no desire to control the lives of Gazans. Jerusalem would undoubtedly prefer to work with a single, united Palestinian Authority that accepts Quartet principles. but still, Hamas controlled Gaza would not be a target for major military operations if it refrained from launching rockets at Israeli civilians.  It is Hamas’s unwillingness to do this which has brought the ceasefire to an end.

Israel’s options and dilemmas

Speaking to ministers at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin noted that Hamas now possesses rockets capable of reaching Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and even Beersheva.[3] Hamas has used the ceasefire to re-arm and improve its capabilities. In addition to bringing in advanced weaponry, Hamas has also developed a defence strategy modeled on that of Hezballah in southern Lebanon.[4]  This involves the construction of a network of tunnels within Gaza, and the importing of large amounts of missiles and anti-tank weaponry into the Strip via the smuggling tunnels of northern Sinai. The intention would be to inflict maximum losses on the IDF in the event of a large-scale incursion into Gaza, in the belief that this would bring about an Israeli withdrawal. Israel at no time during the previous six months considered ending the ceasefire in response to Hamas’s illegal arming of itself. Rather, everything has been done to preserve the lull.

With resumed rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel’s options are not simple. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to Haaretz newspaper, said last week, “It is a difficult situation. Extremists are firing rockets into Israeli cities with the aim of killing civilians – these could land on a school and it will be a disaster. I have been prime minister of a democracy and I know what it is like – if that type of thing is happening to your people you are expected to act. The problem is that Israel’s options are difficult.”

A number of ministers adopted a belligerent tone in Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. Both Foreign Minister Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have called for the toppling of Hamas rule in Gaza. Transport Minister Mofaz is also understood to favour military action. There has been angry criticism from residents of the western Negev at what they regard as the government’s inadequate response.  The fact that Israel is in election mode amplifies the public rhetoric. 

The IDF has not been idle in the period of the lull, which has been used for training and for developing effective means for acting against Hamas in Gaza. But Israeli policymakers are aware that there is no simple military solution to the problem of Hamas, and its lawless regime in Gaza. As Defence Minister Ehud Barak noted at the Cabinet meeting, even if two or three army divisions were to operate in Gaza, this does not mean that the rocket fire would stop. [5]  

Furthemore while the IDF undoubtedly has the capability of re-occupying Gaza, there is no clear exit strategy.  So Israel could find itself forced to remain in Gaza against its will, resulting in the deaths of IDF soldiers, and the harm to civilians that is an unavoidable part of warfare in populated areas. Israeli and international public opinion undoubtedly another factor here, not only because of the loss of Israeli life that a large-scale operation would entail, but also because both public opinion and the Israeli Supreme Court would object to an operation which took a heavy toll on the lives of Palestinian non-combatants.  

For the time being, therefore, it seems that unless Hamas chooses to sharply escalate rocket fire from Gaza, the response will be limited to IAF attacks on launch crews and other associated targets. It is important to stress that Israel possesses options other than renewed ceasefire or an all out attack on Gaza.  Widening the circle of targets available to the IDF in Gaza to include parts of the terror network beyond simply those individuals directly engaged in rocket fire is starting to take place.  But Minister of Defence Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi,  Shin Bet Head Yuval Diskin and the influential principal advisor to the Defence Minister Amos Gilead are all understood to be opposed to a large operation at this time. 

Yuval Diskin and other senior security officials also consider that Hamas itself does not want to see the situation deteriorate into all out war between the movement’s Gaza enclave and Israel. [6] Holding power in Gaza represents the most significant achievement of Hamas since its foundation.  It gives Hamas real power over 40% of the Palestinian population west of the Jordan and the movement does not wish to lose these assets. 

Hamas has apparently, however, calibrated that it can afford a certain escalation, which will gain it kudos among the Palestinians and in relation to its rivals.  Hamas officials consider that Israel will do all in its power to avoid a major operation into Gaza, because of the losses this would entail in Israeli life. It is notable that the number of rockets fired after the formal end of the ceasefire was no more than were fired in the previous days, indicating that Hamas may well be seeking a new set of understandings rather than all out confrontation.

To go back to a situation of Tahdiya, Hamas certainly want an improved set of understandings. It may be that its demands – such as the opening of the crossings, including the Egyptian controlled Rafah Crossing – will be in excess of what Israel or Egypt can accept.  It may also be that the movement’s belief that Israeli society is feeble and fatigued and therefore does not have the stomach for a large scale operation – may cause it to miscalculate the amount of aggression Israel is willing to absorb without responding major military response. [7]

Conclusion

Should the rocket fire increase, then a more significant Israeli military response will become an inevitability. Israel possesses options between inaction and all out war, but even a limited ground operation would carry the risk of deteriorating the situation and dragging Israel to an ongoing confrontation which brings few benefits. At the present time, Israeli decision-makers consider that space still exists for a return to the ongoing tense stand-off and would prefer to keep with the policy of containment which has been maintained by Israel toward Hamas controlled Gaza since the Hamas coup of July, 2007. 


[1] Adel Zaanoun, “Gaza ceasefire with Israel over: Hamas,”  AFP, December 18, 2008.  http://www.canada.com

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Roni Sofer, “Diskin: Hamas could reach Beersheba,” Ynetnews, December 21, 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com

[4] Jonathan Spyer, “Fortress Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, July 2, 2008. http://www.jpost.com

[5] Sofer.

[6] Sofer. 

[7] Interview with Hamas official, Ramalah, December 15, 2008.