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.
Q. What’s the immediate backdrop to the latest round of fighting with Gazan Islamists? How did it start? How did it end?
A. ‘Breaking Dawn’ represents an escalating spiral seemingly foreordained. On August 2, as part of a sustained IDF campaign against a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist base in the northern West Bank, Israeli commandos captured a PIJ leader there, Bassem Saadi. The PIJ leadership in the Gaza Strip responded by threatening rocket and anti-tank missile attacks on Israel’s ‘Gaza Periphery’ of towns and kibbutzim.
Israel’s response was to lock down the periphery, cancelling work and summer activities as a precautionary measure while residents stayed close to shelters. The daily flow of Gazan day laborers into Israel ceased. The PIJ, sensing it had scored points against Israel without firing a shot, simply sat tight.
With elections approaching, Prime Minister Lapid--a security novice--and Defense Minister Gantz sensed they had been maneuvered into a bind. If they relaxed the alarm around Gaza, there could be casualties from a much-anticipated PIJ attack. If they did nothing, they were paralyzing life for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and ceding the tactical advantage to the PIJ. They were also potentially drawing criticism from the principal political opposition, the Likud, thereby losing votes in Israel’s upcoming elections. The IDF, too, looked helpless. On Friday afternoon, August 5, after four days of waiting and with the PIJ lulled into complacency, the Israel Air Force (IAF) launched a surprise attack on PIJ targets in Gaza, killing the northern Strip PIJ commander, Tayseer al-Jabari. A day later the IAF killed the southern Strip PIJ commander, Khaled Mansour. The PIJ responded with sustained rocket attacks, mainly on the Gaza Periphery. By Sunday night around 1,000 rockets had been fired, some reaching the Tel Aviv area, some so poorly constructed that they landed inside the Strip and killed Gazans. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system reported 96 percent success in intercepting rockets that would have fallen on populated areas in Israel. No Israelis were killed. At midnight Sunday, a ceasefire entered into effect, reportedly negotiated by Egypt with Hamas participation. Notably, Hamas, the dominant Islamist force in the Gaza Strip, did not join the fighting against Israel. Neither did Lebanese Hezbollah--like the PIJ, a proxy of Iran. Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities that erupted back in May 2021 remained quiet.
Q. And the broader strategic backdrop?
A. The past 14 months of Bennett-Lapid rule in Israel witnessed a significant innovation regarding Gaza. For the first time since Hamas took over the Strip in 2007, Israel permitted the entry of large numbers of Gazan day workers to jobs in Israel, where their wages are several times higher than in the Strip. By the outbreak of the latest round of violence, the number had reached 15,000 and was projected soon to rise to 20,000. This exercise in ‘economic peace’ had the short-benefit of incentivizing quiet: the Gaza Strip border had not been this tranquil in years. Beyond this employment-inspired quiet, augmented by financial incentives for Gazan development projects from Egypt, Qatar and the UAE, Bennett and Lapid had no strategy for Gaza other than what they inherited from more than a decade of Netanyahu’s rule. That strategy, if it can be called a strategy, is to isolate the Strip from the West Bank, thereby thwarting some West Bank Islamist activity but also contributing to the absence of a peace process, and occasionally, when the security need arises, ‘mow the lawn’: the exercise in temporary deterrence that the IDF engaged in over the weekend.
One upshot of the Bennett-Lapid-Gantz augmented ‘economic peace’ policy that is illustrated in the current round of fighting is the Hamas decision to remain on the sidelines. Apparently, Hamas is too heavily invested in the economic benefits of the current policy and in a possible prisoner exchange with Israel to join the fighting. On the other hand, Hamas made little effort to prevent PIJ from threatening and then attacking Israel.
That said, it is not as if this round constitutes a setback for some sort of peace process. Hamas, as a militant Islamist movement dedicated to Israel’s destruction, is in any case not interested in a genuine two-state dynamic with Israel. The PIJ is equally uninterested. But with Iran’s backing, it is fighting to demonstrate a certain unity of Islamist commitment between the West Bank and Gaza. Hence the arrest of one of its West Bank activists prompted the PIJ’s militant reaction in the Gaza Strip.
Here it is interesting to compare Operation Guardian of the Walls of May 2021, when tensions in East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were behind Hamas’s launching of an 11-day rocket war from Gaza. Hamas was then bidding to outperform the West Bank- based Fateh through a demonstration of overall Palestinian unity and leadership. On Sunday, Jewish observance of the Tisha B’Av commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with some 2,000 Jews visiting the Temple Mount, ostensibly provided an opportunity for both PIJ and Hamas to try to link and expand the conflict. For Hezbollah in Lebanon, too. None did.
Q. And Islamists in Israel?
A. The Islamist Raam party, which supports the outgoing coalition, avoided engaging in the angry criticism of the Lapid government expressed by Israel’s more secular Arab parties represented in the Knesset by the Joint List. Indeed, Raam just reconfirmed the leadership of Mansour Abbas, who advocates concentrating on bringing domestic benefits to Israel’s Palestinian Arabs rather than supporting Palestinian militancy in the Middle East arena.
Q. Assuming the fighting has ended, what has Israel achieved? What has PIJ achieved?
A. This round of fighting, unusually, reflected Israeli preemption--in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip--rather than an Israeli response to specific and immediate Palestinian Islamist violence. PIJ can claim to have provoked Israeli ‘aggression’ without firing a shot. In any case, notwithstanding the inevitable Israeli boasts of having inflicted ‘heavy blows’ on the PIJ and decapitating its military leadership, Iran can be counted on to assist the PIJ in a quick recovery from its considerable combat, leadership and logistics losses in IAF attacks. From Israel’s standpoint, Operation Breaking Dawn may have been politically useful in the short term. Israel may have gained a few months of deterrence during the countdown to November 1 elections. A few Israeli observers expressed the hope that a weakened PIJ would now be swallowed up by a more moderate Hamas, thereby contributing to stability in Gaza. That sounds like wishful thinking.
For their part, Lapid and Gantz were able to display broad support on the part of the Israeli public, including all Zionist parties. They can claim that they, too (like Netanyahu), know how to defend Israel. They can point to the fact that, unlike in May 2021 under Netanyahu, the fighting never spread beyond the Strip: in particular, Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities remained quiet, as did the Lebanon front. That is an achievement for deterrence on the part of the Israeli security establishment.
Apropos, this round also featured an unusual degree of Israeli inter-agency cooperation: the Shin-Bet General Security Service gets full credit, side-by-side with the IDF, for the scope and accuracy of the destruction visited upon PIJ in Gaza. Iran’s indirect involvement behind PIJ activities in the northern West Bank and the Gaza Strip raises the question--which is admittedly speculative--whether in Iranian eyes there is a link to Hezbollah’s dilemma in southern Lebanon. Were Hezbollah, at Iran’s bidding, to have joined the latest fray and attacked Israel with rockets from the north, could this thwart Israeli-Lebanese détente over an energy-related maritime boundary? That this did not happen is encouraging; it reflects Israeli deterrence, but also the scope and severity of the crisis in Lebanon.
Q. Bottom line?
A. Lest we forget, both Hamas and PIJ are militant Islamist movements dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In this sense, it is legitimate for Israel to have preempted against PIJ. Recall that Israel preempted in 1956 and 1967, too. It’s intriguing that surprise preemptive attack still works. That said, all parties emerged from this flare-up with (ultimately replaceable) short-term losses (PIJ) or gains. Lapid and Gantz get valuable election-time quiet in Israel. Hamas may conceivably have scored points on behalf of its indirect economic and even security collaboration--a possible prisoner swap--with Israel. Hamas’s exclusive role as recognized ruler of Gaza was reinforced. The outcome in numbers (preliminary Israeli figures, Friday through Sunday): no fatalities in Israel; some 25 PIJ combatants and 10 Gazan bystanders killed by IAF fire in addition to extensive material damage; some 15 Gazans killed by inept PIJ rocket fire; nearly 2,500 Israelis sought counseling for stress. The employment of thousands of Gazan Palestinians inside Israel, which will presumably be resumed quickly, is a useful short-term stopgap. But it is not a strategy for Israeli long- term coexistence with Gaza. And it certainly does not point to a political solution for the Palestinians that could prevent Israel’s continued descent down a slippery slope toward a disastrous one-state reality. Meanwhile, there is new wind in the sails of the Israel Defense Ministry’s record budgetary request for 2023--aimed primarily at Iran.