Operation Shield and Arrow: Win, Win, Win, Win, Win? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 15, 2023)


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. Surely you are not arguing that all parties came out winners in the latest armed clash between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

A. I would argue that this is what the belligerents and associated actors--all five of them--are telling themselves since the five-day conflict ended Saturday night. But this is an extremely short-term assessment that, for at least some of them, will not stand the test of even a brief interval of time.

Q. Start with Israel. It won?

A. Israeli military-strategic commentators argue that Israel ‘won’ because it restored, or strengthened, its deterrent profile and at least temporarily enhanced the safety of Israelis in the Gaza periphery. Israel took the initiative against PIJ, and that initiative consisted of the simultaneous targeted killing of three very senior PIJ military men in which the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet displayed truly cutting-edge cyber and joint operational skills. Three more targeted killings of PIJ generals followed.

All told, a serious warning message was sent at the tactical level to the leaders of Israel’s enemies everywhere, from Beirut to Tehran: Israel can do this to you, too. Israel successfully restored some of the deterrence it had been losing of late due to its internal judicial-political crisis, the perception of waning American military presence in the region, and Iran’s resurgence in patching up relations with Gulf Arab states.

Apropos Israel’s internal crisis, at least during Shield and Arrow even Israel’s most extreme-right advocates of downgrading the country’s judiciary had to acknowledge that the fight against PIJ was being led by the very IAF pilots and Unit 8200 cyber experts who have spearheaded the public protest and been labeled by the far right ‘traitors’. That show of national unity is another win for Israel, albeit almost certainly a temporary one.

“We changed the equation,” Prime Minister Netanyahu summed up.

Q. Was the picture really this positive for Israel?

A. Operation Shield and Arrow was not precisely an ‘initiative’ but rather a response to PIJ’s launching on May 2-3 of around 100 rockets against the Gaza periphery. And that in turn was PIJ’s response to the death in an Israeli jail of Khader Adnan, a PIJ hunger striker who committed suicide by self-starvation (see last week’s Q & A).

Nor was Operation Shield and Arrow just another link in the usual tit-for-tat chain. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sharp drop in public support, coupled with loud complaints from the Kahanist-messianic Itamar Ben Gvir to the effect that Netanyahu was not sufficiently punishing the Gazans for their rocket transgressions, played a role in motivating the prime minister to act. Post-fighting opinion polls gave Netanyahu a boost in public support.

Then too, Israel’s air strikes once again inadvertently, and despite impressive precautions, killed civilians--ten, including children--located where PIJ commanders were hiding. Those casualties were hardly a ‘win’ for Israel. Then too, few Israelis delude themselves that the tit-for-tat won’t have to be repeated a year or so from now, thereby reflecting continued lack of effective Israeli strategic deterrence against its Islamist enemies.

In short, few in Israel took Netanyahu’s changing-the-equation boast seriously. He and his predecessors have been saying this after every round of fighting with Gaza’s Islamists since the latter seized power there in 2007. The bluster sounds increasingly pathetic.

PIJ and its Iranian patron will undoubtedly now try to develop new methods for evading the sophisticated targeted killing techniques that Israel used to take out a total of six leading PIJ commanders in five days.

Q. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) won?

A. PIJ lost much of its senior command echelon to Israeli targeted killings. It found itself fighting alone while Hamas sat out this round. It fielded a mere 10,000 fighters against the mighty IDF. Its rockets, once launched, were of such low quality that they had a 25 percent likelihood of falling short. They killed four fellow Gazan Palestinians inside the Strip and a Gazan day laborer on the Israeli side of the fence.

No matter. PIJ ‘won’ by surviving this round for five days and by obliging hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the south and parts of the center of the country to either flee or stay very close to shelters.

So persistent was PIJ’s Beirut-based leader Ziyad Nakhalah in demanding (from afar) that his Gazan fighters continue the fight, subsidized by Iran, that in the end the Israel Air Force was plainly running out of targets in the Strip. Nahalah could blithely claim the “end of another round of conflict with the Zionist project.” A lot of Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims considered this a ‘win’ for PIJ.

Q. And Iran, PIJ’s financial and ideological patron?

A. PIJ, though made up primarily of Sunni Palestinians, is a full-fledged proxy of Shiite Iran, like the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. Iran, PIJ’s financial backer, was an accomplice in PIJ’s rocket attacks, both before and during Shield and Arrow. Note that Iran and Hezbollah, which controls South Lebanon, were also behind a brief rocket attack from Lebanon a month ago. And Iran is backing both Hamas and PIJ in the West Bank as well.

Iran, then, can consider itself a winner insofar as it is deepening, through its proxies, its operational presence on Israel’s borders. And judging from the past month, Iranian-backed provocations are becoming more frequent, too.

Q. Hamas sat out this round. Is it the ultimate winner?

A. Hamas played the role vis-à-vis PIJ of helpful host country government in this conflict, reminiscent of Egypt sponsoring Fedayun attacks on Israel during the 1950s and Lebanon hosting Fateh during the 1970s. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. It did not join PIJ in attacking Israel but did not stop it, here and there helped it, and overall coordinated its efforts. Hamas emerges as a kind of semi-responsible adult, not jeopardizing its economic interests vis-à-vis Israel--tens of thousands of Gazan day-laborer commuters, fuel and machinery deliveries from Israel paid for by Qatar and the UAE--yet taking some indirect credit for PIJ’s 1460 rocket attacks in five days.

Note, in this connection, that concern over the danger that Hamas would feel obliged to join the attack on Israel and begin firing its tens of thousands of longer-range rockets was a factor in Israel’s decision to accept Egypt’s proposal of a ceasefire. In other words, in its own way Hamas deterred Israel--another way of winning.

Q. Finally, Egypt: the ultimate arbiter?

A. Egypt borders on both the Gaza Strip and Israel. It could be far more generous in stabilizing Gaza through aid and influence if it did not resolutely insist, since 1967, that Gaza, being part of Palestine, is Jerusalem’s problem, not Cairo’s.

Still, when Israel and Gaza fight, Egypt fears spillover--among its own plentiful Islamists, among Sinai Bedouin who are neighbors of Gaza, and because Gazans in distress will try to flee to Egypt. Hence Cairo hastens to offer its good offices and its carrots and sticks to mediate a ceasefire. When it succeeds, in this case in a mere five days, Cairo gains regional and international prestige, which it needs to help rebuff criticism of President a-Sisi’s heavy-handed rule.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The overcrowded Gaza Strip holds more than two million impoverished Palestinians. With the exception of a few genuine hard-hard-hardliners, no Israeli wants to reconquer the Strip. The cost in dead and wounded on both sides would be gruesome. Israel would have to directly administer the daily lives of an angry enemy population, at a huge cost in both treasure and international reputation.

Yet in the case of Gaza, even a less hawkish and less intransigent Israeli government than Netanyahu’s would not find anyone to negotiate with there regarding some sort of final status arrangement. The Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with Iran’s backing, insist that Israel cease to exist; any arrangement short of that can be no more than a short-lived ceasefire. To make matters worse Netanyahu, who rejects the far more feasible option to negotiate final status with the PLO in the West Bank because he covets that piece of real estate, is happy to leave Hamas in power in Gaza and to weaken the PLO in the West Bank. That way, he avoids international pressure to talk to Palestinians.

The result, then, is round after round of ‘mowing the lawn’ in the Gaza Strip. Operation Shield and Arrow was the IDF’s eighteenth in Gaza since Hamas chased Fateh and the PLO out of the Strip in 2007. All operations have had fanciful code names--Guardian of the Walls and Break of Dawn are the most recent, from 2021 and 2022 respectively--and most involved primarily Hamas and only secondarily PIJ. Sometimes it was the United Nations along with Egypt that arranged the ceasefire. The State Department would prod Egypt and Israel--but not the Gaza Islamists with whom the US does not negotiate, thereby by definition limiting US influence.

Sharp-eyed contemporary historians note that the time-gap between the IDF’s Gaza operations is shortening: Shield and Arrow’s predecessor was only nine months ago; before that a full year of peace and quiet went by. The residents of Israel’s Gaza periphery, some of whom were cheering on the IDF to ‘finish the job’ rather than accept a ceasefire, have no illusions about what is coming next.

Indeed, with the Palestinians’ Nakba Day on Monday May 15 and Israel’s provocative Jerusalem Flag Day March (starring Kahanist minister Itamar Ben Gvir!) this Thursday, who knows when the next rockets will fly?