Israel's Airstrike Gamble

(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Hamas supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah carry obituary posters of Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari as they march in support of the people of the Gaza Strip. On the third day of a military operation prompted by a rocket attack just south of Tel Aviv, Israel targeted dozens of sites it said Gaza gunmen were using to fire rockets. The Israeli offensive has not deterred the militants from firing more than 400 rockets aimed at southern Israel since Wednesday, the military said.

The rocket that landed in the Mediterranean Sea south of Tel Aviv yesterday represents yet another troubling escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not since the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fell on the city, has Tel Aviv come under similar missile attack. There are reports of more rockets fired at Tel Aviv this morning, and the world waits to see whether the 16,000 Israeli reservists called up today means a ground invasion of Gaza similar to 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead.

As for Hamas’s future in Gaza, let me end the suspense: The Israeli offensive which began on Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, who was reportedly considering a long-term cease-fire at the time, will not result in the end of Hamas rule there. Hamas has spent the last five years entrenching its political control of the Strip, severely limiting the activities of competing groups. (As one Fatah activist put it to me when I visited Gaza last February, “We [Fatah] almost don’t exist in Gaza anymore.”) Nor, most likely, will the operation end the problem of intermittent rocket attacks against southern Israeli cities, whose homemade launchers are fairly easy to conceal, though it will degrade militants’ longer-range capabilities, which require more hardware to operate and are thus easier to locate and destroy.

A senior Israeli official acknowledged much of this in an interview last month, before the current round of escalation began. “If worst comes to worst, we can (launch) a much wider operation in Gaza. But that is not going to really solve the problem,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. "Most of the [rocket] activity is coming now not from Hamas," Kuperwasser added, noting that Islamic Jihad—a more extreme militant faction—was receiving a relatively bigger share of the weapons that had been “pouring into Gaza” via a network of smuggling tunnels on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

It’s important to understand the current violence in context. Having taken control of Gaza from Egypt in the 1967 war, Israel withdrew in 2005 (though both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department still consider Gaza to be under Israeli occupation). Having won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in elections in 2006, Hamas wrested control of Gaza from its rival Fatah in 2007 in a short but violent war. Israel responded by tightening the Gaza blockade that it had implemented in response to Hamas’s capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, severely restricting the amount of goods and supplies that could enter.

The limits on goods like produce and construction supplies quickly gave rise to a massive black-market trade through the smuggling tunnels beneath Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. As I reported in February, taxes levied on this trade by Hamas allowed the group to challenge the external leadership (which had been based in Damascus but which broke with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad over his 2011 crackdown on protesters) over things like reconciliation with Fatah, on which the Gaza leadership insisted that it hadn’t been appropriately consulted.

In other words, a policy with the stated goal of weakening Hamas in Gaza has not only had the effect of strengthening its rule there but also resulted in the proliferation of tunnels through which terrorist groups have been able to obtain weapons.

In any case, if the past is any guide, Hamas will still be there after the fighting has died down. After more rockets have been fired and bombs dropped, and more people have died, Israel will claim that “deterrence has been re-established,” and Hamas will declare victory by virtue of the fact that it had, once again, faced down the Zionists’ military might and survived. While Hamas remains officially committed to Israel’s destruction, its leaders have in the past enforced cease-fires with Israel, which has drawn the criticism of even more extreme factions like Islamic Jihad and Salafi-Jihadist groups, who consider Hamas too moderate. Indeed, if Hamas’ control of Gaza were significantly degraded, it’s most likely that these groups would rush to fill the void, which would be disastrous for all involved.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, may prove to be the most significant casualty of this episode. He was the biggest political loser of the last Gaza war, where the perception was that he supported the attack against his rivals. Abbas’s failure to achieve any tangible goods for the Palestinians, either through now-dead negotiations with Israel or through his half-hearted efforts to upgrade Palestine’s status at the U.N., make him more irrelevant by the day. It seems likely that this latest round of war will end with Israel’s most implacable enemy still in place and its more moderate peace-partner even more weakened.

It’s not entirely clear what Israel attempted to achieve with this latest offensive beyond destroying militant groups’ longer-range rocket capabilities. The insistence by Israeli officials of Israel’s right to defend itself is not really on point. No one seriously disputes that Israel, like any country, has a right and obligation to defend its people. What is in dispute are the means by which Israel exercises that right, the context—i.e., an ongoing military occupation—within which it is exercised, and the goals it can realistically achieve, and at what cost.

In the same interview quoted above, Director General Kuperwasser acknowledged that “radicalism is gaining power” in Gaza. “This atmosphere drives people to extremist ends.” It’s likely that enduring yet another military onslaught will only worsen that atmosphere. While this latest operation may provide Israel with momentary calm, it will not address its longer-term security concerns and only exacerbate its isolation in the region.

It should go without saying that rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, in addition to being war crimes, do absolutely nothing to further the Palestinian cause. While bringing an end to those attacks is the immediate goal, the broader challenge for the U.S. and its regional partners is to develop a stronger set of incentives that, instead of simply periodically punishing extremism, rewards moderation through a genuine easing of occupation and closure, with the stated goal of ending both.

 

Comments

"It’s not entirely clear what Israel attempted to achieve with this latest offensive beyond destroying militant groups’ longer-range rocket capabilities."

i suspect that's exactly the point at the moment. it takes a guy like b*sh, dumb as a log, to create a leadership vacuum in the region by taking out saddam hussein. israel is hardly stupid. stability, even with a hate-filled enemy, trumps chaos. (that's why israel lobbied against taking out hussein and why they are so quiet about syria.)

what you fail to mention is the timing of the escalation of rocket launches by hamas over the past two weeks. for the better part of the year, hamas has allowed locals to lob (or attempt to lob) a few qassams and mortars over the transom on a weekly basis, often engendering pinpoint anticipation from the iaf.

how do you explain the dramatic increase in bombings? surely it is not the taking out of jabari, since in the days just prior to his death, the escalation had become untenable.

finally, how do explain the timing of the hamas offensive? is there something in the water? is there something going on with iran? can we expect hizbullah to join in if there's a ground invasion?

final thought: i believe that the purpose of the blockade was to ensure that the weaponry available to hamas remained crude and inaccurate. without a blockade, it is clear to me that hamas would have available the type of missiles hizbullah likely has at its disposal. until a gazan actor comes along who wants to play at peace, it seems to me to be the best of very limited options available to israel.

Israel is merely retaliating. If Hamas, et al would leave them alone Bibi would have no excuse to go sabre rattling. It is difficult to support Israel with all the PR spouting that they are killing kids, but when the Hamas, Hezbollah and other Jihadis fire from hospitals, schools, mosque parking lots and apartment balconies or roofs, that's what happens. It's time to tell all the truth, not just the truth according to which ever side will sell more space or air-time.

The only player who can put a stop to the missiles fired from Gaza is Morsi and he will not put a stop to it until the US govertment lets him know that it demands a stop to it . At 2 billion a year the US govt has a lot of leverage so why are they still firing missiles?

This is a good analysis of the limited prospects for the Israeli actions, but it seems to imply that Israel has better options vis a vis Hamas & Gaza. Just what are they supposed to be?

Your question at the beginning has a simple answer: while the attacks do not achieve anything durable for Israel they strengthen Netanyahu's case for reelection: he is the man who guarantees action against the evil Palestininan extremists. Just like Hamas on the other hand is the only party that will carry on the fight against Israel (or at least the Israeli right wing) which solidifies their power. Thus Netanyahu is good for Hamas and Hamas is good for Netanyahu, even though Netanyahu is bad for Israel and Hamas is bad for the Palestinians. This whole thing is an alliance of cynicism.

what part of the hamas charter doesn't the author get?
let's start with this.

"Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement."

get it? they don't want an agreement; they want total victory. all else is nonsensical delusion.

keevan d. morgan, esq., chicago

or, perhaps the author has a good way to deal with a different provision of the hamas charter:

"The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him."

get it? they want all the jews dead. per my prior post, they don't believe in initiatives or peaceful solutions or international conferences. now, if as a matter of logic, we combine the two hamas charter provisions, guess what? there is an amazing revelation: they do not want peace, but rather a war in which they kill all the jews.

therefore, i posit the best solution towards peace at this time is that bibi takes the entire 75000 reserve force, takes over gaza completely, destroys every last weapon, and exits.

the price will be high, but israel's enemy is nigh and it is not interested in peace by its own fundamental principles.

that doesn't mean peace wouldn't be great, but with hamas, peace is not an option.

keevan d. morgan, esq., chicago

keevan d. morgan, esq., chicago

Some years ago, when Arabs kamakazies were blowing themselves up in Israel in places where children congregate, about 75% of Palestinian Arabs applauded. Then Israel began dropping bombs on murderers in Gaza. The approval rate plummeted to something like 35% (I forget the exact figures). Killing Arab Moslems is effective. Strength impresses them. Being kind to them is interpreted as weakness.

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