BICOM Briefing | Gaza: How can the next war be prevented?

On Monday, 15th August, BICOM hosted a conference call for journalists with Brig. Gen (res.) Michael Herzog, on his recent Strategic Assessment Gaza: How can the next war be prevented?  Brig. Gen. (res.) Herzog is a Senior Visiting Fellow at BICOM. He  served as chief of staff and senior military aide and advisor to four Israeli ministers of defence and was previously the head of the IDF’s strategic Planning Division. He has participated in nearly all of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians since 1993. He is also an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I will briefly present my thoughts about Gaza, which are elaborated in the paper. The bottom line is I believe that Gaza is a bit neglected in terms of policy, attention and priority. On the one hand, it is a powder keg and a pressure cooker, threatening at some point to explode.  On the other hand, there are policy options that could certainly reduce the chances of escalation and they should be implemented, and I elaborate these policy recommendations in my paper.

Over the course of six years, we in Israel were compelled to fight three rounds of armed conflict with Hamas and others in Gaza. Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in the summer of 2005; Hamas took over in 2007. Then, at the beginning of 2008 we had three rounds in Gaza following incessant firing of rockets into Israel.

The question in Israeli public discourse and policy circles is not if there will be another round, but when.

Gaza’s challenges

When you look at Gaza, you see a lot of challenges. First and foremost, the major challenge is Gaza’s collapsing infrastructure and the very slow pace of reconstruction. While serious work of reconstruction has been moving ahead over the last two years, the pace has been very slow and there is much to be done. Gaza’s infrastructure is in a terrible state, and has been constantly deteriorating since Hamas took over and following three rounds of armed conflict, the loss of Egypt as a strategic neighbour – following the ousting of Morsi – the loss of additional sources of funding because of the Arab Spring, and many other reasons.  Today in Gaza, there is electricity supply for an average of four to eight hours a day, acute shortage of drinking water, because 90 per cent of the aquifer is polluted, and the sewage system is collapsing. Only about two thirds of Gazans are in any way connected to the sewage system. There is a humanitarian crisis.

There are several reasons why this is the case and why reconstruction is moving ahead so slowly. First of all, there is a lack of donor funds. Following the war in Gaza two years ago there was an international conference in Cairo, and donors pledged $3.5bn designated for Gaza. To date, only around 40 per cent arrived.

Secondly, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the representative of the Palestinians are reluctant to play a role on the ground in Gaza, given their rivalry with Hamas. They don’t want to be in a position where they play a role on the ground in Gaza, but Hamas benefits politically. Egypt is profoundly hostile to Hamas and regards them as their national enemy, because Hamas is essentially the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas itself, rather than prioritising the reconstruction of Gaza, have diverted construction material to their own military needs. Today, almost all reconstruction materials go through Israel, and every day an average of over 800 truckloads go through Israeli crossings into Gaza. The Egyptian border is normally closed, and if it is open, on average maybe a day or two a month, it is open only for people, not for goods. As far as Israel is concerned, Israel is suspicious of Hamas’s belligerence and its desire to arm itself. The border is not just open for anything to go in without security considerations.

Hamas’s military capabilities

According to Israeli intelligence, Hamas military capabilities are a very high priority for Hamas and they invest as much as 20 per cent of their budget in their military build-up. This includes a modest indigenous industry as well as trying to smuggle whatever they can through tunnels, through the sea, and also through Israeli crossings. It’s not easy, because the Egyptians are very heavy handed along the border, Israel and Egypt control the sea, and there’s thorough inspection along the Israeli passages. Nevertheless they are still trying and building, recruiting more people, digging tunnels, international projects in Gaza with hundreds of figures who are working 24/7. For them tunnel building was one of the major lessons from the last war where Israel destroyed 14 cross-border offensive tunnels. While Israel is developing new technology to detect tunnels, it will still take several years until the system is in place. Hamas concluded that if they dig as many tunnels as possible then they can overwhelm our defences and also Hamas’s force of 5,000 people who are supposed to dash out of these tunnels in times of war.

In recent years, we have seen the military wing of Hamas, which is led by very extreme radical figures, the most noteworthy is Yahya Sinwar, who was released from an Israeli jail a few years ago in the Shalit deal as well as others such as Marwan Issa and Mohammad Deif, a well-known figure all of whom have started to cooperate with ISIS in Sinai. I believe it is now a well-established fact that there is smuggling going both ways. ISIS operatives have received medical treatment in Gaza. And Hamas, according to intelligence reports, also established a modest production line for weapons in Sinai, to serve both sides. Some ISIS figures also visit and receive shelter in Gaza. Recently it was published that a guy called Suleiman al-Sawarka – a well-known ISIS figure from Sinai, is now in Gaza. He was one of the perpetrators of the terror attack on Taba in 2004 which killed 30 people, including 18 Egyptians and 12 Israelis. For Hamas in Gaza, Sinai provides them with strategic depth and also creates operational options vis-à-vis Israel. In Gaza itself Hamas is also challenged by several jihadi groups which Hamas is trying to offset by cooperating with ISIS in Sinai. I don’t believe these groups threaten Hamas’s rule in Gaza, but they are certainly a potential destabilising factor.

Israel’s policy options

When you look at this picture and relate it to Israel’s policies towards Hamas, it is clear that while Israel regards Hamas as an enemy, it has to navigate its policy within tensions. On the one hand, Israel seeks to weaken Hamas, but not beyond a certain point because Israel understands the lack of any credible moderate alternative. If Hamas collapses, there could be fragmentation, a variety of jihadi groups, and greater militarisation of Gaza – which is not what Israel seeks. Ultimately, for lack of a better alternative, Hamas is considered the responsible actor and de facto government in Gaza that one doesn’t contend with politically, but contends with in terms of facts on the ground. Another tension is maintaining deterrence without escalating the situation. I think it’s in Israel’s best interests to see the reconstruction of Gaza, so as to alleviate pressure. However, at the same time, this must be done in a way that does not allow Hamas the opportunity to rearm itself or benefit politically at the expense of the PA. Finally, Israel needs to do all these things without undermining the importance of developing relations with Egypt or undermining the PA.

For Israel, the bottom line will be a preference for a long-term ceasefire arrangement, because Israel does not want to find itself fighting a war every few years in Gaza. This is also challenging given the difficulty in reconciling different interests and expectations by both Israel and Hamas. There is another consideration that is the political ambitions of Hamas. Hamas is at a very low point today, but has political ambitions to lead the Palestinian movement. They believe there is an opportunity given the weakness of the PA, and the fact that the PA leader Abu Mazen is over 81 years old and about to retire. Hamas believe they can fill this void. They are running in the upcoming local and municipal elections scheduled for October 8 2016. They might score some successes in the West Bank. If they do, it might whet their appetite to run in the future, in the post-Abu Mazen era, in the national elections. Therefore, I don’t think it’s in the interest of the international community or Israel to empower Hamas politically.

Economic, not political policy options

Political policy options are less available today. This is for a number of reasons: the nature of Hamas, Hamas’s rift with the PA and the fact that reconciliation is not expected in the foreseeable future, and the hostility from Egypt. All of these reasons taken together don’t offer many political options. But there are plenty available economic solutions – fixing the infrastructure, and what it really requires is policy priority, attention, funding and implementation. In my paper, I outline a list of things that could be done to fix the electricity networks and supply the water, the sewage, and everything that goes with this to improve the economy. There are available resources, and Israel could and should provide more. We have desalination plants with overcapacity in the Mediterranean. We can provide more electricity. The international community should continue to implement the existing plans, and build a power plant for Gaza and a desalination plant and provide additional solutions.

So the bottom line is, while Gaza is a pressure cooker that could explode, if all of these projects are implemented, then I think this would definitely significantly reduce the chances of escalation in Gaza.

Question: In the last few weeks heavy fighting was reported in Sinai whereby a senior ISIS commander was reported to have been killed. How significant might that be in the ongoing battle between Egypt and ISIS in the Sinai?

MH: There is an ongoing battle between the Egyptian army and ISIS in Sinai, especially in the north-east Sinai and the triangle of El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, on the border with Gaza, where ISIS elements have entrenched themselves and are operating with and within local Bedouin tribes. They are also very active in central Sinai in Jabal Halal. The Egyptians are battling them, but with many difficulties. I think they can certainly do with more accurate actionable intelligence, and work more with the local tribes in order to fight this phenomenon.

Recently the Egyptians reported that they killed the leader of ISIS in Sinai, Abu Doaa al-Ansari. He’s well known, (and that is a nickname of course, his real name is Mohammed Freij Ziada). He’s the brother of the founder of ISIS in Sinai, Tawfiq Freij Ziada, who was killed two years ago and certainly this is significant for the Egyptians. But I think we are still not close to the defeat of ISIS in Sinai. They are a strong element and it will take time to defeat them.

Question:  Could you expand on the idea of ISIS inside Gaza in terms of numbers? You said that they have been given certain aid by Hamas in the Strip, but do they also have a weaponry and fighters presence there?

MH:  In Gaza, there is a number of small jihadi groups who are challenging Hamas because for them Hamas is not jihadi enough, their resistance is not strong enough, and they have more political considerations than these jihadi groups would like to see. But right now they are not a concrete threat to Hamas’s rule. They are not very big, they’re numbered in dozens, maybe a few hundreds, all in all. Some of them found their way to Syria and Iraq but again, numbered in dozens, not in thousands like in Saudi Arabia or Tunisia. To them, Hamas is not jihadi enough. There is also the [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad – a bigger group which has been traditionally supported by Iran – which is also challenging Hamas.

I think one of the reasons Hamas in cooperating with ISIS in the Sinai is to offset these jihadi groups within the Gaza Strip so that these smaller groups will not receive support from ISIS in the Sinai. [The ISIS-Hamas links] also provide Hamas with valid military cooperation, weapons, and smuggling efforts to Sinai. Operationally, in times of war, it means Hamas can also attack Israel from the Sinai, not only directly from Gaza. In addition [the ISIS-Hamas links allow Hamas] to better deal with the domestic challenge of those jihadi groups. Right now they’re not a concrete threat to Hamas’s rule. But since the last round of armed conflict two years ago, all rockets fired into Israel have been carried out by these smaller more radical jihadi groups, not by Hamas. In fact, Hamas is enforcing the ceasefire on them, because for now it is interested in maintaining the ceasefire. Therefore, these smaller groups have a destabilising impact which should not be neglected.

Question: Could I ask about Hamas’s relationship today with Iran – how would you describe that relationship? Has Iran played a role in re-supplying Hamas with weaponry and rockets since the last war in 2014?

MH: I would distinguish between the political wing and the military wing of Hamas. In terms of Hamas ideology, there is no difference [between the wings]. But in practical terms, and what they each prioritise, there are differences. The military wing is even more extreme and radical than the political wing. The political wing bets on Qatari and Turkish financial support, looks for avenues to mend fences with the Arab world, seeks reconciliation with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and with others and shies away from developing relations with Iran because they believe this will undermine their relationships with the rest of the Arab world. Alternatively, the military wing fosters relations with Iran. By the way they foster relations at the same time with Iran and ISIS and work with both of them. While Iran does not stop its financial support for Hamas because of the war in Syria, Hamas would not support Assad politically; they always continue their military support for the military wing, through smuggling. And smuggling is difficult today, because Egypt effectively sealed the border, though it’s still possible to smuggle here and there. Iran also helped Hamas’s military wing a few years ago to establish and develop their own modest indigenous defence industry, so that they can produce rockets. They’ve done that with Iranian support and guidance. What they need is to smuggle into Gaza dual use products which can be used in this industry.

The political wing, as I said, was reluctant to develop relations with Iran. At one point, Khaled Mashal tried, but the Iranians would not receive him because he went to Saudi Arabia as well and this really upset them. But recently, there was a very unusual statement by Mashal’s deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk who out of the blue praised Iran, saying that they provide assistance more than anybody else. It is not clear to me whether this is connected to the upcoming internal elections. He is making a bid for Mashal’s position. That might be the reason.

Question: In your paper you talk about tensions within Israel’s policy, and a senior defence official was quoted saying that the next round in Gaza will be Hamas’s last, implying that Hamas would be toppled. I’d be interested to hear your impressions of which direction you see Israeli policy going in the future towards Gaza?

MH: Israel’s traditional strategy vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza was that in times of war, Israel should strive for sufficient deterrence for as long as possible rather than go in and destroy or eradicate Hamas, which would require conquering Gaza and staying there for a long time in order to really dismantle its military infrastructure and raise the challenge of an exit strategy: if you leave Gaza, who do you turn it over to? Israel’s new Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has for a long time been sounding a different voice, saying that Israel’s strategy should be to destroy Hamas, not only achieve sufficient deterrence. Soon after he took office there was a quote from a senior defence official saying that the next war should be the last one, which everybody attributes to him. And then it was leaked to the Israeli media that he instructed the IDF to make contingency planning for war, to destroy Hamas without conquering Gaza.

How will this be translated into concrete policies? It remains to be seen. I hope we don’t get to that point. I don’t know how you destroy Hamas without conquering Gaza. We will have to see. Maybe the longer he serves as defence minister, the more he’ll understand the complexities of the situation; maybe that will impact his position as well. It is easier to make such statements when you don’t bear the responsibility. But if you really want to destroy Hamas you have to conquer Gaza and stay there for many months, and that is not something I think anyone in Israel has an appetite to do. Israel can do it but I don’t think it prefers to do it.

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