April 25, 2016 - Gaza

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the Israeli calculations regarding the means and benefits of responding with force to new Hamas tunnel-digging; if Israel’s deterrence has failed and Hamas continues to attack by diverse means, if there are additional reasons for the Netanyahu government to avoid retaliation; if there are people in Israel advocating re-conquering and reoccupying the Strip; and if recent sporadic rocket fire from Gaza was not attributed to Hamas, who’s in charge there?

 

Q. Early last week, Israel revealed that it had uncovered a Hamas tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip several hundred meters into Israel. Yet Israel did not retaliate. What are the Israeli calculations regarding the means and benefits of responding with force to new Hamas tunnel-digging?

 

A. A number of tactical and strategic considerations are relevant here. At the tactical level, one key question is whether the tunnel was dug by Hamas after the summer 2014 war when Israel uncovered and destroyed 32 tunnels, or whether it was a “veteran” tunnel left over from that war that evaded discovery back then. Obviously, if the latter case is a possibility, there is no casus belli or justification for armed retaliation even if the tunnel is technically an act of war.

But the use of different building materials for constructing the tunnel--apparently reflecting Israel’s success in depriving Hamas of the kind of concrete it used in the past--appears to indicate this was a new tunnel. Certainly Hamas has made no secret of the fact that it is digging more tunnels. Indeed, Hamas has acknowledged considerable loss in human lives due to new tunnels collapsing upon their diggers, possibly because of this dearth of sufficiently strong materials for fortifying the tunnels.

Assuming this was a new tunnel, we have to assess that Hamas is preparing new aggression against Israel, reflecting a failure of the deterrent effect ostensibly achieved by Israel’s massive response against the Strip back in summer 2014. Tens of thousands of Israelis living within tunneling distance of the Gaza Strip are on high alert and are lobbying for a more aggressive Israeli response.

 

Q. Then why not respond now? Why wait?

 

A. PM Netanyahu’s explanation is that uncovering the tunnel reflects a major technological breakthrough on Israel’s part. Implicitly, if Israel can thwart tunnel-digging by means of a defensive measure without attacking and invading Gaza, it need not engage in yet another fruitless and destructive war with Hamas. While Israel has not revealed the nature or even the name of this new defensive weapon, it potentially is on a par with the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that protects Israelis against Hamas rocket attacks.

Just as Iron Dome can give Israel time to calculate its steps against Hamas rockets before or perhaps without counter-attacking, so this new subterranean “dome” could obviate the need to escalate Israel’s response to every Hamas tunnel. Perhaps, indeed, these defensive measures can ultimately persuade Hamas to forego fruitless and counter-productive aggression against Israel and seek some form of constructive co-existence. Proponents of this approach note that sporadic rocket fire from Gaza has declined year-by-year since the summer 2014 war ended: last year there were only 25 launchings, with virtually all attributed not to Hamas but to more extreme Islamist groups in Gaza. 

The counter-argument to this defensive rationale was voiced last week across the political spectrum. From Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman on the right to Yitzhak Herzog on the left, calls were issued for Israel to retaliate against Hamas for the tunnel. Those demands were reinforced when, in mid-week, a suicide bomber attacked a bus in Jerusalem and when, later in the week, Israeli security authorities rounded up the Hamas West Bank terrorist cell that was behind the bombing. The entire scene seemed reminiscent of the provocations that preceded the summer 2014 war, when Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza coupled with the West Bank kidnap murder of three yeshiva students by Hamas eventually escalated into nearly two months of war.

 

Q. Well, if Israel’s deterrence has failed and Hamas continues to attack by diverse means, are there additional reasons for the Netanyahu government to avoid retaliation?

 

A. There are three. First, it’s bad politics to retaliate against Hamas at Pesach time when people are vacationing with their families. Israel has plenty of time at its disposal if it wants to launch a punitive attack in Gaza.

Second, a regional consideration: negotiations with Turkey regarding Gaza are reportedly in high gear. If they succeed, Israel would afford enhanced economic access to the Strip by Ankara (an electricity-generating ship, port facilities, etc.) in return for restoration of full Turkish-Israeli diplomatic and perhaps strategic relations. Obviously, a major military flare-up in and around Gaza would provoke new and fierce Turkish condemnations of Israel and end any near-term prospect for such a breakthrough. (On the other hand, both Egypt and Russia are pressuring Israel not to reconcile with the Erdogan government in Ankara because of its Islamist leanings. Presumably, neither Cairo nor Moscow would object loudly to a punitive Israeli attack against Hamas in Gaza.)

Would a major boost in economic investment in Gaza, whether by Turkey, Israel or the international community, make a difference? This writer has consistently argued that “economic peace” has virtually no chance of persuading Palestinians to forego their ideological and political objectives regarding Israel. But Netanyahu is a long-time advocate of precisely this approach.

A third consideration involves a host of international contingencies. One US presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, has already accused Israel of over-reacting against the Gaza population two summers ago. Why feed those accusations with another attack? The French are planning a Middle East summit in Paris on May 20 to launch a renewed campaign for a two-state solution within the framework of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. While under current circumstances this initiative has virtually no chance of success, it behooves Israel not to be seen as endangering it with a new Gaza adventure that in any event is in the best case perceived as restoring deterrence for no more than a year or two.

Netanyahu’s political skills and close control over his government, including internal dissidents like Bennet, have thus far enabled him to avoid retaliating. Yedioth Aharonot strategic affairs commentator Ronen Bergman summed it up last Tuesday: “When there is no clear path to a war on terror and there is no reasonable political alternative, we remain mainly with bombastic declarations. [The public’s] high support for Netanyahu demonstrates that large portions of the Israeli public buy into this. But [Hamas] does not.”

 

Q. Is no one in Israel advocating re-conquering and reoccupying the Strip?

 

A. Virtually no one. There is little appetite in Israel for directly ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in the Strip. It would take months of occupation to root out all existing terrorists, not to mention the new terrorists who would emerge. The inevitable massive international condemnation of Israel would be devastating for a country already hard pressed to combat BDS and other boycott efforts. There would be no one to turn the Strip over to in order to withdraw. Israeli losses in the course of reoccupying could number in the hundreds.

In short, this is not a viable strategy.

Q. You mentioned that recent sporadic rocket fire from Gaza was not attributed to Hamas. Who’s in charge there?

 

A. Arguably, Hamas is merely hiding behind other more extreme Islamist groups precisely in order to avoid inviting retaliation by Israel against its regime and military forces in Gaza. On the other hand, there are clearly more extreme splinter Islamist groups in the Strip that Hamas has no alternative but to tolerate. Some of these are developing new ties with Iran, which has been reluctant to support Hamas with funds and weapons since that movement withdrew its headquarters from Damascus and cut its ties with the beleaguered Assad regime that Iran supports.

Then too, there are reportedly sharp divisions within the Hamas political and military leadership that may explain recent tunneling and support for West Bank-based terrorist cells. The Hamas military wing is increasingly dominated by Yahya Sinwar, who was released from 22 years in Israeli jail in the 2011 Shalit deal and is considered a radical hardliner. Sinwar advocates closer ties with Iran and disparages Gulf-based Hamas political leaders like Khaled Mashaal who tend to oppose military adventures against Israel. And he is collaborating closely with ISIS anti-Egyptian rebels in northern Sinai.

Obviously, if the tiny Gaza Strip’s leadership is itself conflicted, it becomes even harder for anyone in Israel--or for that matter in Turkey, Egypt or the West Bank--to contemplate resolving the Gaza problem, whether politically or militarily. This is a particularly salient observation when we recall that no one in Israel seems to have a viable strategy for pacifying the Gaza Strip.

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