March 27, 2017 - Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah: should Israel deter proactively or avoid provocation?

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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 Hamas' accusation that the Mossad assassinated a senior militant Friday in the heart of Gaza City; whether the killing could lead to escalation and possibly a new conflict with Hamas in Gaza; if Israeli involvement in the killing would reflect a more aggressive deterrent policy; the application of this deterrent policy on Israel's northern fronts; and the dangers of this more aggressive Israeli policy.

 

Q. Hamas accuses the Mossad of assassinating a senior militant Friday in the heart of Gaza city. Why would Hamas blame Israel? Why would Israel even consider such an operation?

A. Mazen Fuqaha was shot four times in the head outside his home not far from the beach last Friday evening. The assassin’s pistol was fitted with a silencer. The proximity of Fuqaha’s home to the Gaza City beach might have afforded an assassin access from the sea. The assassination seemed professional.

Fuqaha was involved at a high level in organizing Hamas terrorist cells in the West Bank, where he hails from. When Israel released him from jail in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, one condition was that he not return to the West Bank. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment plus 50 years for organizing a bus attack from there that killed nine Israelis. According to Hamas, Israel had both the motive and the access for the killing; no one else had a motive. Indeed, Israel has actively pursued Shalit-deal released Hamas prisoners who reverted to terror despite a pro-forma pledge not to do so that was another condition for their release. Hamas officials, unnerved by the murder of one of their own deep inside their Gaza Strip redoubt, instantly blamed the Mossad.

But the Mossad is not responsible for intelligence and operations in the Gaza Strip. In the Israeli security setup, the General Security Service (Shin Bet; officially Shin Bet Kaf) is. So this is a strange inaccuracy on the part of Hamas leaders, who surely know what Israeli security institution they are up against. A second problem with blaming Israel is access: if Israeli assassins can land from the sea, find their way through the warrens and back alleys of the most crowded place on earth, kill their target and escape without a trace, this would reflect a quantum leap in Israeli clandestine capabilities in Gaza that Hamas really should worry about.

As for motive, despite Hamas denials the list of Fuqaha’s potential killers is long. It includes the Salafi Islamist extremists who are proliferating in Gaza and challenging Hamas’s dominance there by launching rockets at Israel. Then there is West Bank-based Fateh which energetically opposes Hamas and its terrorist organizing activities there, as well as Egypt which periodically accuses Hamas of aiding ISIS in Sinai. Finally, the killing could even reflect internal Hamas rivalries or even grudges. Not too long ago, Hezbollah apparently eliminated one of its own military leaders in Damascus and blamed Israel; he was reputedly chasing the wives of other Hezbollah militants. Notably Egypt, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority have all kept silent about the Gaza killing.

 

Q. The killing is really quite unique in the annals of Hamas’s struggle against Israel. Hamas has vowed to revenge it. Will this lead to escalation and possibly a new conflict with Hamas in Gaza?

A. According to Israeli Intelligence assessments, Hamas is not currently interested in a new armed confrontation with Israel. It still needs to rearm, rebuild and repair the damage in Gaza from the 2014 conflict. The Strip’s economic situation is catastrophic, and relations with Egypt need to improve. Then too, Hamas is reportedly moderating its charter to signal a readiness to acquiesce in a two-state solution. From all these standpoints, Hamas should be deemed likely to threaten and bluster but to do nothing by way of revenge.

On the other hand, Hamas in Gaza has a new and reportedly more militant leader, Yahya Sinwar, also released in 2011. And it is reportedly concerned that if it does not preempt and allows Israel to complete construction of a subterranean anti-tunnel barrier the length of the Gaza Strip--a project that is visibly underway--Hamas’s capacity to attack Israel will be radically reduced. These factors ostensibly militate in favor of new Hamas aggression sooner rather than later. To strike back at Israelis without inviting retaliation against Gaza, Hamas would presumably try to attack settlers or even senior IDF officers in the West Bank.

One way or another, the experience of recent years teaches us that Israeli Intelligence is not always successful at understanding the workings of the Hamas decision-making process. The 2014 summer war, which itself had not been predicted and which lasted nearly two months, was replete with periodic Israeli assessments that Hamas had “had enough” and wanted a ceasefire--assessments that repeatedly proved mistaken.

 

Q. If we assume that Israel was behind last Friday’s Gaza assassination, wouldn’t this reflect a more aggressive deterrent policy?

A. This brings us to the strategic dimension of the discussion. It appears to center on the policies of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s minister of defense, with regard to Israel’s deterrent profile during the current “war between wars” with Hamas in Gaza and with Hezbollah and potentially Syria and Iran to Israel’s north.

War between wars is the term employed by the IDF to define the time span separating all-out wars with an enemy like Hamas, during which violence is relatively low level but not absent. Israel’s objective in a war between wars is to delay the next war by deterring its enemy. Lieberman believes that Israel must be more militarily pro-active in enforcing its deterrent needs: it should both threaten retaliation for attack and, when attacked even at a minor level from the Gaza Strip and even by Salafists who oppose Hamas, it should respond disproportionately to back up its deterrent profile. This is intended to ensure that the next war comes later rather than sooner.

Thus Lieberman has openly threatened to send the IDF in to conquer the Gaza Strip if Hamas starts another war. In turn, this would be the logic behind an Israeli role in the assassination in Gaza City. Mazen Fuqaha might have been a relatively mid-level Hamas militant whose removal hardly seemed to justify the risk. But the assassination, whether by Israel or some other actor, sent his superiors in Hamas an Israeli message--as long as they believe Israel was behind it.

 

Q. And this discussion of deterrence applies to Israel’s northern fronts as well?

A. Absolutely. There, a recent Israel Air Force attack in Syria against a strategic weapons shipment intended for Hezbollah (see last week’s Q & A) took Israeli combat aircraft deep inside Syrian territory north of Damascus. They reportedly came close to hitting Russian forces, and Syria responded by launching an anti-aircraft missile at them. Israel’s ambassador in Moscow Gary Koren was apparently reprimanded for the attack by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Lieberman’s response was to threaten to attack Syria’s ground-to-air missile systems if they target Israeli aircraft again, and to approve additional forays into Syrian air space.

Lieberman reportedly argues that any hesitation by Israel in the face of Syrian threats and Russian pressure is liable to be understood by Israel’s many antagonists in Syria--the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah and potentially even Russia--as Israeli weakness that invites aggression. In this sense, the unique aspect of the war between wars in the north is that the previous war and its predecessor pitted the IDF against only Hezbollah in Lebanon whereas the next war is liable to be against a coalition embodying not only Hezbollah but Iran and possibly Syria as well, and it will be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

 

Q. How dangerous is this more aggressive Israeli policy? Couldn’t it boomerang?

A. Lieberman’s efforts at deterrence-by-bluster moved Shlomo Gazit to recall a similar situation from the past when Israel responded in a different manner. Major General Gazit was head of IDF Intelligence in early 1977 when Syria deployed a company-strength military unit to southern Lebanon near the Israeli border. This was during the civil war in Lebanon; Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had resolved not to allow Syrian forces, which had intervened in the civil war, to exploit their presence in Lebanon to open a second front with Israel.

The question at the time, discussed recently by Gazit in his weekly blog, was how to bring about the withdrawal of the provocative Syrian force on Israel’s Lebanon border and restore Israel’s deterrent posture there without starting a war. A public Israeli demand to that effect would have been met with a Syrian refusal. The Syrians could hardly allow themselves to yield overtly to Israeli threats; besides, they would argue that they had been invited by the Lebanese government to enter the country and restore order. By the same token, an Israeli armed buildup on the Israeli side of the border would have invited yet more Syrian units to the area.

The solution was to pass a quiet message to the Syrians via the United States. A visit by US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was exploited for this purpose. The Syrians got the message, moved their military unit away from the border and a crisis was averted without the public even knowing about it. Gazit concludes that a public military confrontation should only be invoked as a last resort.

Fast forward to March 2017. Lieberman apparently threatened publicly to attack Syria’s air defenses without first trying to send the Syrians a quiet but firm deterrent message, in this case via Russia rather than the United States. (Had he sent a quiet back-channel message he would not have threatened publicly so quickly.) If the public threat was not a last resort but rather a knee-jerk Israeli reaction, this merely increases the danger that Syria will feel obliged to counter the next Israeli air incursion by firing more surface-to-air missiles. This, in turn, will increase the risk of escalation that nobody really wants.

Lieberman presumably has a different point of view. He apparently also believes that when it comes to the Russians and their new area of influence in Syria, he understands best what to do.

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