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Briefing
November 20, 2012

Operation Pillar of Defense – An assessment of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas

by
Michael Weiss

With Hamas-Israel hostilities now well into their seventh day, it’s worth analyzing the political and military conditions that led to this latest outbreak in warfare, what’s different about this campaign from previous ones, and what the likelihood is for an escalation, possibly an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza.

Jabari. Last year’s brokered exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was seen to be a sign of reluctant cooperation between Israel and Hamas, although in retrospect it might have actually enabled the signal strike of Operation Defense of Pillar. Shalit was imprisoned before, during and after Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009, but the key Hamas figure involved in both his capture and release was Ahmad Jabari, the commander of the Qassam Brigade, whom the Israeli Air Force assassinated in a targeted air strike on Wednesday, precipitating the latest barrage of rocket attacks.  Israeli columnist Aluf Benn has described Jabari as Israel’s “subcontractor” in Gaza, the man whom military intelligence relied on to ensure a tenuous (and frequently violated) truce. But the recent spate of rocket attacks into southern Israel, coupled with Shalit’s return home, likely impelled the IDF’s decision to target Jabari first in a show of renewed confidence: not only had he now become unnecessary, he had failed to adequately maintain a cold peace.

A Cast Lead replay?  Some 30,000 IDF reservists have been called up and stationed along Israel’s southern border since Operation Pillar of Defense began. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has approved an army request to widen the reservist draft to 75,000, prompting speculation that an IDF land incursion into Gaza might be soon underway. Already, however, there have been complaints about the army’s preparedness for a ground incursion, with reservists reporting of a shortage of provisions, according to Ha’aretz. Disorganization within the reserve forces was a major controversy for the Israeli security establishment during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the IDF will want to avoid a repeat performance should a ground offensive be decided upon.

Politically however, there is cohesion at the top of the Israeli command structure, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak seeing eye-to-eye on the entirety of Israel’s operations throughout the past week. Israel’s demands for honoring a cease-fire are threefold: 1. The disarming of all terrorist groups inside Gaza; 2. An end to all rocket attacks against Israel; 3. An enforced long-term ceasefire.

Although some analysts have pointed to the country’s upcoming elections as a catalyst for escalating hostilities, it seems far more probable that if the last two of these demands are satisfied or even agreed to, Netanyahu and Barak will stay a ground assault into Gaza. In seven days, and so far with the full and comprehensive support of the United States, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has struck about 1,350 targets inside Gaza, all with the aim of taking out Hamas’s most advanced rocket systems, including dozens of Iranian-made Fajr-5 and “M-75s” (which Hamas claims are homemade), stored in silos above and below ground. By Monday, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, the spokesman for the IDF, said that Gazan rocket fire had been reduced by about 40 percent since the start of hostilities — a reduction that has surely increased in the days since.

Israel’s strategic objective is to destroy Hamas’s weapons infrastructure without politically destabilizing the only governmental apparatus in Gaza. Rival Palestinian party Fatah is too weak and unpopular to assume control in the latter eventuality. Although casualties in Gaza were comparatively low in the first days of the IAF’s bombing campaign, they have escalated in the last 72 hours.

In total (as of this writing), there have been some 112 Palestinians killed and 920 injured. Israeli and Palestinian sources are already disputing the proportion of combatants to civilians killed and questions have been raised as to the causes of some civilian deaths as some were apparently the consequence of faulty Palestinian rockets that have landed inside the Strip rather than of IAF bombardment. Still, an air strike that targeted the house of Yihya Abiya, Hamas’s rocket chief, wound up destroying the neighboring home of the Dalu family, killing 11 people (Abiya reportedly survived with slight injuries).

Khaled Meshaal, the current Secretary-General of the Hamas Politburo, has defiantly rejected a cease-fire until and unless Israel stops it air campaign first and Hamas’s three demands are met. These are: 1. The full opening of all border crossings into Gaza; 2. The cessation of targeted Israeli assassinations of Hamas officials; 3. The allowance of all groups in Gaza to remain armed.

Israel would have little international backing in a ground conflict in Gaza, particularly given the new Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government, which has denounced the IAF air war, declared open solidarity with Hamas and opened the Rafah border crossing to allow refugee flow into Egypt. Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil traveled to Gaza on Friday, ostensibly to try and broker a cease-fire. However, he made no mention of an immediate cessation of hostilities. “The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims,” Kandil said during a visit to Shifa Hospital. “Palestinians are heroes.” Nevertheless, both Hamas and Israel are still relying on Cairo — with the added intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — to broker a mutually acceptable truce. Arabic media today suggests that one is mere “hours” away, likely indicating a wariness of Hamas’s current patrons to prolong the conflict.

One should also take into account Israel’s own security calculations. Whereas a ground invasion of Gaza would have certainly followed the launching of 1,128 rockets at Israeli territory prior to the installation of Iron Dome, this multi-billion dollar air defense system has proved itself highly effective in the current campaign. As of 5:40 p.m. Monday, its anti-missile batteries intercepted 324 rockets, including two that were aimed at the Tel Aviv area.

Not every rocket fired at Israel needs to be intercepted (the system determines its targets based on each incoming rocket’s location and trajectory) but of those that Iron Dome has tried to, it has been successful roughly 85 percent of the time. The Israeli Defense Ministry has said that the three Israeli fatalities suffered in the last week, all in Kiryat Malakhi, were the results of a “technical malfunction” of the Iron Dome battery stationed close to that southern town.

True, air raid sirens are going off round the clock all throughout the country, the south (Beersheba especially) continues to be bombarded and Jerusalem for the first time in forty years has been targeted by incoming missiles. But overall, the internal security situation has been far more manageable for Israel than it ever was in years past, and this might give the current leadership, clearly reluctant to wage a ground offensive, more room for maneuver than is widely acknowledged.

Hamas’s expanded and improved arsenal. However off-target, Hamas’s salvos against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demonstrate that the group’s military capability since Operation Cast Lead has been upgraded. This week marks the first time that Tel Aviv has been under aerial bombardment since 1990; Jerusalem since 1971. The point is clear: Hamas wants to project a parity of conventional warfare, even if the projection is still extremely far from reality.

According to Israeli security assessments, much of the materiel has been imported into Gaza from post-Gaddafi Libya, and much else has been constructed in factories within the Strip, no doubt with the tacit assistance of Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliates now in charge in Cairo. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind what Hamas’s capability was prior to the regional upheavals of the Arab Spring. According to a U.S. State Department cable dated November 2009 (about 11 months after Operation Cast Lead) and published by Wikileaks, Israeli Defense Intelligence (IDI) said that Hamas’s arsenal was being fed through arms smuggling. The group was then thought to possess:

“…A few rockets with ranges over 40 km — perhaps as far as 60-70 km, or within range of Tel Aviv.  In addition, the IDI believes Hamas possesses quality AT systems such as the Kornet PG-29 and quality anti-aircraft artillery (AAA).  These weapons join an already potent arsenal including Grad rockets with ranges up to 40 km, ammonium perchlorate (APC) oxidizer for indigenous rocket production, hundreds of 120, 80 and 60 mm MBs, dozens of mortars, C5 K air-to-surface rockets, PG-7 AT rockets and launchers, SA-7 MANPADS, PKS AAA MGs and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and quality AT, such as Sagger missiles and launchers, and light anti-tank weapon (LAW) rockets.”

This again demonstrates that some, if not all, of the rockets fired into Israel were warehoused before the Egyptian and Syrian upheavals. How easy these will be to replace remains to be seen. (Following Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel and the United States will no doubt put pressure on Cairo to clamp down on weapons smuggling via Egypt and Sinai.) Assuming, then, that the IAF achieves its strategic objective of destroying the majority of medium-range missiles, Israel might effectively hinder Hamas’s weapons capability to a greater extent than is currently assumed.

Hamas’s new patrons. The Syrian revolution and Hamas’s repudiation of Bashar al-Assad severed, if not permanently, the group’s relationship with its main patron-state, Iran. This led to two immediate consequences. The first was Iran’s cultivation of other Gaza-based terrorist groups, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in particular, to occupy the role of favored Palestinian proxy. Some PIJ militants have even converted from Sunni to Shia Islam in a more ardent display of loyalty to their new paymasters and military trainers in Tehran, a development that has led to some sectarian conflict inside Gaza, with Hamas raiding PIJ-occupied Shi’ite mosques.

The second consequence was that Hamas has had to turn to two new state patrons, namely Qatar and Turkey. In a historic state visit to Gaza last month, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamid al-Thani pledged $400 million in development aid to Hamas. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the Strip shortly. Because both are allies of the United States it was initially thought that they might have a moderating influence on Hamas, but this hasn’t been the case, owing primarily to the group’s internal power dynamic, both within its externally located Politburo and within its own Gaza-based administration. Khaled Meshaal, long rumored to be a “moderate,” is marginalized and stepping down from his role as Politburo Secretary-General, leaving the post open to newcomers and internal rivals.

In this context, the latest anti-Israel offensive can be seen as an audition, of sorts, for Hamas’s political leadership. Of particular interest is a Guardian op-ed, published Monday, by Musa Abumarzuq, the Cairo-based deputy chairman of the Politburo and a top contender to be Meshaal’s replacement. Abumarzuq strikes a conciliatory note with respect to Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, perhaps signaling his willingness to advance the stalled Hamas-Fatah unity program that is now almost two years ago. Indeed, Abumarzuq now needs to compete with the rising media profile of Ismail Haniyeh, who is the other top contender for Politburo Secretary-General, and who is benefiting from his Arabic media portrayal as a stalwart commander inside Gaza.

Moreover, the proliferation of Salafist-jihadist cells operating within Gaza – most of which are peopled with former or active Hamas members who have grown disillusioned with the ruling party’s perceived ideological softness – has led to the revival of a broad “resistance” mentality. Outside of Hamas, too, there is intense competition for the mantle of Islamist top-dog in Gaza, which is why the so-called Popular Resistance Committees (PRCs) have been targeted by Israeli and Egyptian security. Indeed, throughout 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – the PRCs launched their own rockets into Israel and waged their own suicide bombings in the Sinai Peninsula. So far, several PIJ commanders have also been targeted in Operation Defense of Pillar, including Ramez Harb, a leader of the Al Quds Brigades, who was killed in an IAF bombing of a media building in Gaza.

It is therefore unsurprising that Hamas has shown little self-restraint in escalating a conflict it knows will unleash punishing devastation, with the heaviest burden borne by ordinary Gazans. Given the range of its missiles, it’s also worth inquiring as to whether or not these attacks are meant to showcase a readiness to reconcile fully with Iran.

Because of the use of Fajr-5 missiles, there is some speculation that the Hamas-Iranian relationship was never substantively severed at all; although many of these missiles could have been smuggled into Gaza prior to the Syrian uprising and Meshaal’s break with Damascus. Israel’s bombing last month of what was thought to have been an Iranian weapons factory in Khartoum may have been a clearinghouse of Fajr-5s intended for use in Gaza, although credible public intelligence in support of this claim is so far lacking.

Whatever the case, by demonstrating that it is now within striking distance of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas must know that its value as a once and future proxy of the mullahs has just increased. This week’s rocket attacks are a dress rehearsal for what it can do following an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, should one ever occur. Israel’s response can be expected to be similarly divined by Tehran in its own calculations about how far it can approach the red line the Israelis have made clear they will not tolerate.

Michael Weiss

About Michael Weiss

A widely published journalist, Weiss has expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS's Media Briefing: "Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment". Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.

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