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Looking at Gaza’s Strategic Status in the Wake of Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’

Looking at Gaza’s Strategic Status in the Wake of Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’ Looking at Gaza’s Strategic Status in the Wake of Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’
To cite this article: Laish, Gur, “A New Look at Gaza’s Strategic Status in the Wake of Operation Pillar of Defense”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 2, Spring 2013, pages 13-16.

[Photo: Courtesy of By Master Sergeant Kevin J. Gruenwald]

Last spring I wrote an article for Infinity Journal entitled, “The Amorites Iniquity – A Comparative Analysis of Israeli and Hamas Strategies in Gaza”.[i] The article addressed the strategies of Israel and Hamas as seen in the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Now, only six months after the end of the most recent clash, Operation Pillar of Defense (also known as ‘Pillar of Cloud’), which took place from November 14 – 21, 2012, it is both interesting and important to take another critical look at the strategic status of both parties in Gaza.

Some key points should be made at the outset of this article: Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza followed precisely the scenario that I outlined in the article, “The Iniquity of the Amorites”, in which I predicted that Gaza would pay a heavy price for escalating violence to a level that was unacceptable to Israel. This is exactly what happened. Now, in the aftermath of the operation, a new situation is developing which does not include active resistance (Mukwama) in Gaza. It is still too soon to know whether this new scenario heralds a permanent or merely a temporary shift in Hamas’ strategy, but we can now see a window of opportunity for significant change in the shape of the conflict. The alternative, which is a return to resistance, almost certainly guarantees that Gaza can expect more violence in the future, following the analogy of The Iniquity of the Amorites.

The Principles of The Iniquity of the Amorites

Hamas’ strategy derives from efforts to find points of balance between three primary goals: the physical annihilation of the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people; the development of a Palestinian entity in Gaza; and the pursuit of resistance as a modus operandi.

Israeli strategy is based on Israel’s ultimate political goal, which it is prepared to pursue via military means. That policy is the continued development of the Jewish homeland in Israel (encompassing both social and economic development), even at the cost of a readiness to absorb a certain level of violence in areas close to the border, such as those located near the Gaza Strip.

The two strategies enable the maintenance of a state of stability with limited conflict in Gaza, similar to the situation that preceded Operation Pillar of Defense. This limited conflict constitutes a balance that is acceptable to both sides (although both would prefer to see improvements in their position). Effectively, such a balance has meant the almost daily firing of missiles into open spaces from the Gaza Strip, with corresponding deterrent activity on the part of the IDF, usually resulting in damage to installations, and also causing injury or death to terrorists on a weekly basis.

In my article I described the mechanism of the Amorite’s Iniquity further. When Hamas, for a variety of reasons, tries to escalate its level of activity beyond a certain threshold, it obliges Israel to take counter-action at a level, which exceeds the usual acceptable limited conflict. Thus, it manages to bring about the failure of its own strategy.

In light of Operation Pillar of Defense, we will examine the validity of this hypothesis: When Hamas succeeds, it fails.

What Led to ‘Pillar of Defense’

In the period preceding Operation Pillar of Defense, missile firing across the border from Gaza had escalated, with a consequent increase in Israeli casualties. The periods between one round of escalation and the next were growing shorter and there was a growing feeling in Israel that some significant counter-action would be inevitable.

Despite the forthcoming elections in Israel, which had been pushed back to January 2013, hence making it difficult for the government to make a decision as critical as mounting a large-scale military operation in Gaza, the Israeli government did, in fact, decide to act. As was the case in Operation Cast Lead four years previously, Israel appeared to take Hamas by surprise, killing the head of the organization’s military wing, Ahmed al-Jabari, in a targeted killing that signaled the start of more widespread rocket and mortar attacks. According to Israeli reports, most of the long-range missiles belonging to Hamas and other Gaza organizations, which had presented a threat reaching as far as Tel Aviv, were destroyed.[ii] The IDF also attacked short and medium range rocket reserves, as well as other targets belonging to Hamas’ military wing and other terror organizations.

After the start of the operation, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense at the time, described the objectives as: “Reinforcing the deterrent, inflicting serious damage on missile reserves, painful damage to Hamas and other terror organizations, and minimizing attacks on Israel’s civilian home front.”[iii]

Israeli military efforts following the initial attack can be sorted into three main types:

  1. Continued attacks on terror installations – missile launching infrastructure, installations and activities.
  2. Active defense, including hundreds of successful interceptions by the Iron Dome system.
  3. Mobilizing forces in preparation for a ground incursion in Gaza.

Hamas responded with extensive firing on population centers in the Negev, and within a few days began also launching occasional missiles at Tel Aviv and other heavily-populated areas in central Israel. After about one week of fighting, the two sides reached a framework for a cease-fire agreement with Egyptian mediation and help from the United States. The conflict ended within eight days. According to IDF figures, in the course of the operation 1,500 targets in Gaza were hit and 150 – 180 Gaza residents killed, some of whom were civilians and the majority terrorists.[iv] Some 1,500 missiles were fired into Israeli territory, the overwhelming majority on civilian towns and villages. Six people lost their lives in Israel, most of them civilians.[v]

The Iron Dome defense system achieved unprecedented results, successfully intercepting hundreds of missiles directed at densely populated areas. The success of intercepting rockets aimed towards Tel Aviv and other central areas was especially notable (although one rocket did land in Rishon LeZion, Israel’s fourth largest city, only 12 kilometers from Tel Aviv). Iron Dome actually downgraded the missile threat to one of “terror activity”, albeit disrupting everyday life in Israel, but not causing severe damage to life and infrastructure, as would have been the case without the system. Israel decided not to deploy IDF ground forces, thus making it possible to end the operation quickly and with only moderate damage in Gaza.

Does Operation Pillar of Defense Correspond with the Analysis of the Amorite’s Iniquity?

The effect of the Amorite’s Iniquity, as described in the April 2012 article, predicts that Hamas’ “success” at widespread firing into Israeli territory and causing damage beyond a level acceptable to Israel would draw Israel into large-scale counter-activity that would result in extensive damage to Gaza. Operation Pillar of Defense was in effect the exact embodiment of that prediction, from the point of view of what happened on the ground. Hamas did escalate its level of violence and the Israeli reaction did exceed the “rules of play” that had been in place since Operation Cast Lead.

The conduct of Ahmed al-Jabari, head of Hamas’ military wing, who was killed at the very beginning of the operation in a targeted killing by Israel, indicates that Hamas had not anticipated this Israeli response. Hamas leaders, especially those engaged in military activity, normally remain in hiding, so as to deprive Israel of the opportunity of attacking them. The fact that al-Jabari was caught unprepared most likely tells us that Hamas misread the situation and believed that Israel was unable to enter into a large-scale operation.

A variety of reasons could underlie this mistaken interpretation on the part of Hamas. It might be that it was merely a tactical error about the timing of the Israeli operation, rather than the likelihood of it occurring at all. It could have derived from an erroneous understanding of Israel’s political situation and a belief that the imminent elections prevented the Israeli leadership from taking action. (It is interesting to note that Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008, also took place on the eve of Israeli elections.) Or the mistake by Hamas could go deeper, arising from a misinterpretation of the power balance between Israel and Gaza and the idea that military considerations (the threat to Israel’s home front) would deter Israel from undertaking major action, in addition to other political dynamics such as the political situation in Egypt at the time.

Whatever the case, Hamas’ estimation of the situation was mistaken, and its short-lived “success” in intensifying the level of firing into Israel immediately before the operation resulted in Israel’s (relatively) heavy-handed response – the “completion of the Iniquity of the Amorites”, just as was predicted in the 2012 article.

The Status in Gaza Today

Although Israel and Hamas agreed on a cease-fire that ended the conflict in November 2012, there have been no subsequent direct negotiations and no cease-fire agreement was signed. This seemingly provides an indication of how each side views what form the new post-conflict reality should take. The actual situation on the ground provides the only indication of agreement between the parties.

Hamas has entirely ceased firing missiles and launching mortar shells from Gaza and seems to be trying to force other Gaza organizations to do likewise. At the same time, Hamas complained to Egypt about IDF activity along the Gaza border fence but did not respond by shooting at IDF soldiers. Nor did confrontations between demonstrators and IDF forces at the border fence escalate into a serious exchange of fire. This seems to indicate a certain degree of understanding between the two sides regarding activity along the border fence. For the time being, Israel succeeded in establishing the immediate political condition of a quiet southern border, mainly though not solely by way of military means. This understanding satisfies Israel’s security requirements and in general the border area continues to be quiet.

After a solitary rocket was fired at Ashkelon, Israel threatened to close border crossings with Gaza. This too seems to indicate a certain understanding in relation to activity at the border crossings satisfying the Palestinians at this stage. On the political front there is plenty of activity from Hamas, which is seeking to promote the organization’s legitimacy as the Palestinians’ accepted representative political group (at least in Gaza). These endeavors result from the isolation imposed on it after Operation Cast Lead. While only months have elapsed since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, for the time being there seems to be a changed situation, one having moved from the use of force emanating from Gaza after years of endless firing of missiles and mortars.

Has Hamas Changed its Strategy?

Hamas’ organizational identity is strongly associated with “resistance”. Does the period of calm in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense denote a change in the organization’s strategy? As I pointed out earlier in the spring 2012 article, Hamas has three primary goals, between which it needs to find a balance. The goal of “resistance” is inconsistent with that of “developing a Palestinian project in Gaza”. And as was detailed in that article, it also fails to bring Hamas any closer to another of its political goals, that of the eradication of the State of Israel.

It could well be that Hamas’ current political activity, as well as its attempt to maintain quiet in the Gaza Strip, signifies a shift in the organization’s strategy (even if only a temporary one). If so, then it would appear that at this point Hamas prefers to concentrate on establishing its position as the legitimate ruling government, and is enjoying its success in Gaza in preference to focusing on the immediate destruction of Israel. Perhaps it has even temporarily abandoned the path of resistance, which – as demonstrated – is in any event not a rational way towards such a policy.

It is important to understand that in decisions regarding resistance Hamas does not operate in a vacuum. Although any decision on actual resistance is in the hands of Hamas leaders (who are divided both physically and ideologically between Gaza and overseas), it is also influenced by considerations outside of the organization’s ideology. Hamas is competing with other organizations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), as well as other Salafi jihadist groups inside Gaza for public support and the ability to recruit young people. The atmosphere on the “street” in Gaza is becoming increasingly radical and desires active resistance. Even if Hamas’ leadership accepts that for now it is in the organization’s best interests to maintain a lower profile regarding the use of power so as to enhance its diplomatic standing, it is influenced by the mood on the street. Thus Hamas can be pushed to act contrary to its own interests in order to avoid being perceived as weak by public opinion. As far as action on the ground is concerned, there is no doubt that at this stage Hamas’ leadership prefers to avoid active resistance, and equally, there is no doubt that this is a new strategy for them.

The test for Hamas will be its ability to keep up such a strategy under the pressure that will certainly be exerted, both by its own members and even more so by other radical organizations that are breathing down its neck in Gaza, to renew resistance. The decision on whether to continue with this new strategy, devoid of active resistance from Gaza, naturally depends to an extent on its political success in Gaza. But also, should Hamas continue in the near future with this “low resistance” strategy it is hard to imagine that it will entirely abandon the idea of resistance, which – as I already pointed out – constitutes part of the organization’s fundamental make-up; Hamas is basically a resistance organization.

Any long-term change in strategy will certainly bring about a complex internal struggle and it is feasible that radical powers within the organization could also become fragmented. Hamas’ rearmament efforts following Operation Pillar of Defense provide no sign of what kind of strategy it has decided on, since such efforts would be necessary whether it intends to engage in active resistance or whether it intends to deter Israel from reengaging Gaza militarily.

Did Israel Apply Adequate Force in Operation Pillar of Defense?

After the operation a debate arose in Israel as to whether steps taken had been sufficiently forceful from a military standpoint. At least two operational questions came to the fore in the context of the strength of Israeli action.

The first addressed the fact that despite a massive call-up of reserve forces, Israel chose not to enter Gaza with ground forces. Those who disagree with that choice point to the risk of losing Israeli deterrent ability if Israel should be perceived as reluctant to commit to an incursion due to the inherent danger to life and limb. On the other hand, those who support the decision claim that since the main object of the operation was achieved without endangering ground forces, it was preferable not to implement the incursion; furthermore, avoiding such a move had the added advantage of preventing unnecessary injury to Gaza’s noncombatant population.

The second question that arose concerns the intensity of aerial attacks and the type of targets attacked. Unlike Operation Cast Lead, in Pillar of Defense Israel appears to have chosen more precisely selected targets with less risk to noncombatants, which explains the small number of injuries to noncombatants in Gaza by comparison with Operation Cast Lead. This decision presumably “exempted” certain types of Hamas’ installations, which, if attacked, would have caused greater collateral damage. At the same time, the smaller degree of destruction also gave Israel an advantage in terms of legitimizing the operation.

How Should or Can Israel Act in the Current and New Situation?

Even if the degree of force employed by Israel was too low, even if such relative restraint allowed Hamas to alter its strategy as suggested, Israel now faces the question of how to handle Hamas’ new strategy, when in fact it is not yet clear whether the change in political behavior means a short or longer-term change in actual strategy.

Israel’s policy towards Hamas has always been one of delegitimization and outright rejection of the organization and its declared political goals (annihilation of the State of Israel). This policy requires Israel to oppose diplomatic efforts on the part of Hamas. However, if it is accepted in Israel that diplomacy offers an alternative to active resistance for Hamas, perhaps Israel should reconsider its policy towards Hamas and avoid damaging such efforts; perhaps Israel should even encourage this new political approach.

What about the Iniquity of the Amorites?

As long as Hamas keeps up an alternative strategy that does not include active resistance, it does not force Israel to take any military countermeasures. But, if for any reason, the organization should return to active resistance in preference to attempts to upgrade its international status, the Iniquity of the Amorites stopwatch will start ticking again, and Israel will again be obliged to resort to applying force in Gaza.

This comparison of the strategies of the two parties to the conflict shows us that Operation Pillar of Defense opened a window of opportunity for each to make a change in strategy towards the other, and this without an overall change in either side’s key policies. The present, exceptional period illustrates this window of opportunity of relative calm inside the Gaza Strip and in Israel’s Gaza belt. Both sides have the choice of trying to strengthen this new direction in their relationship.

However, we cannot ignore the possibility of a return to violent attacks from Gaza. A decision by Hamas to revert to its strategy of resistance could have an ideological basis, or could result from a loss of public support to other jihadist organizations, or could arise from disappointment at the results of the recent change in strategy; it could even result from some operational mishap committed by either side. Whatever the reason, a return by Hamas to active resistance will be a useless mechanism along the lines of the Iniquity of the Amorites, in which case another round of violence will be inevitable.

References

[i] Gur Laish, “The Amorites Iniquity – A Comparative Analysis of Israeli and Hamas Strategies in Gaza”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012.
[ii] Ehud Barak in press conference Nov 14th 2012 - http://ehudbarakhaatzmaut.blogspot.co.il/2012/11/blog-post_5508.html
[iii] Ehud Barak in press conference Nov 14th 2012 - http://ehudbarakhaatzmaut.blogspot.co.il/2012/11/blog-post_5508.html
[iv] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center: Operation Pillar of Defense – update No 8 (November 22nd) page 9, paragraph 18, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20433 and IDF Spokesman on November 22nd 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfoJ9gsHptc
[v] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center: Operation Pillar of Defense – update No 8 (November 22nd) Page 7-9, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20433

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