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A Strategic Briefing by The Henry Jackson Society
Israel’s Strategic and Political Context
Israel is facing an adversary that has proven extremely capable, displayed a total disregard for human rights and the laws of war and is pursuing asymmetric warfare utilising the full spectrum of strategic pain points. The murder of the three teenagers by Hamas near Jerusalem is indeed a “reprehensible act of terrorism” (according to Ed Miliband) and an “appalling and inexcusable act of terror” requiring Britain to stand with Israel (per Prime Minister Cameron), but it is also a botched operation in a much larger war Hamas is fighting to destroy Israel.
Israel faces the most acute and existential threat out of any nation by the rise of radical Islam. The brutality and annihilationist antisemitism these movements bring to bear is a crucial starting point when considering what is fundamentally a zero-sum game of survival that is difficult to fully comprehend from the relative security that other Western democracies such as the United Kingdom enjoy.
The Israeli electorate is committed to the search for peace based on a two-state solution, supported by an overwhelming majority, but is simultaneously aware of the historical rejectionism – the ongoing, systematic refusal by the Palestinians and much of the Arab world to accept Israel’s basic right to exist as a Jewish state – as well as the growing threats their country now encounters. Hamas is now part of a unity Palestinian Authority government in Gaza and the West Bank. Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation which shares Hamas’s annihilationist aims, menaces Israel from the north, and whilst Hezbollah is at war with ISIS in Syria (an Al-Qaeda offshoot that now also threatens Jordan – a potential calamity for Israel’s security), all three agree on the destruction of the Jewish state as a primary goal.
Tactical Utility of Kidnap Operations in the War on Israel
President Obama joined the chorus of British political leaders, condemning the murder of the teenagers as “a senseless act of terror”. Soothing though the concept may be, there is nothing senseless about it once seen through the lens of the openly declared war the terrorist movements that surround Israel have been waging against the country. Indeed, terrorist abduction-murders have a long history in the tactical arsenal of Hamas and Hezbollah’s war against Israel.
As early as 1989, Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin encouraged the tactic of kidnapping and murdering Israelis in order to use their bodies to negotiate prisoner releases – an implicit recognition of the value Israel places on its citizens’ lives. Hamas has gone as far as publishing handbooks on how to conduct abductions effectively, including the ideal targets and hideout locations. In 1994, after Yassin was arrested for terrorist offences, Hamas kidnapped a 19-year-old American-Israeli to demand his release for 200 of its own prisoners. Less than a week later, the hostage’s Hamas captors killed him during an IDF rescue attempt.
The most prominent application of the kidnap tactic came in July 2005 with the capture of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit. After five years of captivity, Shalit was released in a prisoner exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – many of them with Israeli blood on their hands. Hamas’ leaders are on the record citing the kidnap operation a huge success – its Political Bureau Chief and top decision-maker Khaled Mashaal touted it as a “great achievement” and publicly promised more to come.
In 2006 Hezbollah – a Shia terrorist organisation created by Iran and based in south Lebanon – attempted its own version of the tactic, mounting an attack to abduct Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips. Having killed five Israeli soldiers and captured two wounded troops, it badly miscalculated Israel’s reaction to its latest blackmail attempt, sparking the month-long Second Lebanon War. After the war ended, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was forced to concede that he had miscalculated the consequences and would not have ordered the abduction had he known the scope of Israel’s reaction. Israel’s unexpectedly strong response cost Nasrallah significant support and re-established Israel’s deterrent power against the asymmetric threat posed by those seeking its annihilation, with a clear impact on their calculations vis-a-vis Israel to this day.
A Botched Terrorist Operation and Its Consequences
The abduction of the three Israeli teenagers appears to be a Hamas operation gone badly wrong. Israel has identified two suspects in the abduction-murder, both of them well-known Hamas operatives: Marwan Kawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa. The first suspect hails from the Kawasmeh tribe, a Hamas-affiliated clan of whom at least 9 members have blown themselves up in suicide bombings, killing scores of Israelis.
Though the Hamas leadership praised the operation, as it became clear it had gone awry they began to insist they had no information about it, nor were involved in any way. The Palestinian President’s advisers, drawn from the Fatah movement that governs alongside Hamas, made clear to journalists that Hamas would pay a steep price for the operation. President Abbas then went public condemning the kidnapping as an action that hurts the Palestinians, before attempting to build a preemptive coalition of international support to condemn any action Israel might take to defend its citizens. Once it became clear the operation had been badly botched, Hamas announced preemptive threats in their usual vivid terms of “opening the gates of hell” for any Israeli security operation against Gaza. Both President Abbas and Hamas are well aware that this is a deadly tactical game Hamas has instigated, and the Lebanese experience meant they know fully the risks Israeli defensive actions carry, meaning such calculations can go very badly wrong.
The Urgency of Deterrence for Israel
As Israel’s Security Cabinet deliberates over what action to take, it will be acutely aware of the outrage the Israeli electorate feels over this latest atrocity. The Lebanese and Shalit cases have established the kidnap problem as a now intolerable dynamic for Israelis and they are calling for effective measures to deter future attacks.
Israel’s actions in Lebanon have effectively put its enemies to the north on notice about the severity of the response they can expect when trying to test her defences, but the dynamic inside the country with Hamas is different, given the complexities of the political landscape. Israel has enjoyed good security cooperation with Fatah elements of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, working together to keep Hamas from establishing a foothold. With the advent of the Fatah-Hamas unity government, the situation became increasingly complicated for the Israelis, and with this latest terrorist attack it is likely that the security balance will not hold.
The Way Forward
In seeking to defend itself from an asymmetric, existential threat, Israel will be forced to take strong actions to re-assert its deterrence power. Diplomatic attempts at even-handedness, or reflexive condemnations of the ‘cycle of violence,’ are strategically and morally myopic: the random murder of Israeli civilians demands an equally strong, or stronger, response. Denunciations of the Israeli ‘occupation’ are also misdirected: the abduction was conducted in a ‘consensus’ settlement bloc the PA recognises will remain Israeli after a future peace deal, despite Hamas’s claims to all land between the Jordan Valley and Mediterranean Sea. That is why politicians worldwide were so clear in their denunciation of this terrorist attack.
As Israel seeks to deter its foes from further attacks on civilians, it is crucial the United Kingdom, United States and other Western world leaders give Israel diplomatic cover in the international arena – in particular, in the ever-biased forum of the United Nations. A country with a keen appreciation for life has implemented targeted operations – not a collective punishment as has been claimed by Hamas and others. Israel has conducted air strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip and arrested its leaders in the West Bank, targeted action against an organisation classified as a terror group by the United States, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and even Arab states like Jordan and Egypt. Should Jerusalem deem additional action necessary against Hamas, she must be given the time and space to do so.
For its part, Hamas has never disavowed terrorism against Israel but rather encourages it at every opportunity. The organisation continues to deny Israel’s right to exist and to abide by previous Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state. Hamas therefore fails all three conditions set by the Quartet of international peacemakers (the US, EU, UN and Russia) for inclusion in negotiations with Israel.
The unity government struck between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas just days before the kidnapping is therefore itself illegitimate. The West’s tentative recognition of it – by the Obama administration, the EU, and Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties – is credulous and destined to fail. Rather than leading to further ‘dialogue’, bringing Hamas into the government has simply allowed Hamas to carry out its terrorists activities under the auspices of a legitimate body.
Instead, the same Western actors must enforce conditions they themselves set out: until Hamas explicitly meets those pre-conditions, it must not be included in any diplomatic process. It is important to recall that the Oslo Accords could not have been sealed until the PLO recognised Israel and disavowed terrorism (at least rhetorically). There is no strategic justification for lowering the induction criteria for the extremists of Hamas.
As for Fatah, it too needs to prove it is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Despite its reputation as the ‘moderate’ alternative to Hamas, Abbas’s faction has itself glorified the abduction, posting images to its official Facebook page depicting the teens as captured rats and of young Palestinians triumphantly holding up three fingers. Fatah’s own school textbooks and media routinely incite Palestinians to terrorism and portray convicted murderers as national heroes. This time, Fatah social media sites triumphantly posted photos of Israelis mourning for the three victims, erroneously referred to as “soldiers”. Moreover, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority continues to pay the salaries of Palestinian terrorists in prison, regardless of the brutality of their crimes. These payments are in part funded by UK taxpayers whose aid contribution to the Palestinian Authority in light of the latter’s policy of doling out terror stipends has been a serious diplomatic bone of contention between Israel and the United Kingdom for some time.
President Abbas should be praised – as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done – for condemning the abduction, but he and his Fatah faction must now match words with deeds. First and foremost, its unity government with Hamas must be declared null and void until and unless Hamas meets the necessary conditions for inclusion. It must redouble security cooperation with Israel against Hamas in the West Bank. It must demonstrate its good faith by ending incitement and the glorification of terrorists in its textbooks and media. Lastly, it must stop paying salaries to prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes. Twin bills circulating in committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would cut Washington’s funding to the PA by nearly half-a-billion dollars for precisely the PA’s failure to meet those conditions as long as an unreformed Hamas remains a partner in it. Similarly in the UK, it should be inconceivable that our taxpayers’ money is going to support a terrorist organisation. The United Kingdom, other EU member states and all parties interested in Middle East peace should stand behind their democratic ally in the region and must send a clear signal that an unreformed terrorist organisation such as Hamas, actively engaged in a pan-Radical Islamic war of annihilation against Israel can under no circumstances be a partner to any diplomatic process.