The latest round of Gaza tensions, and the Israeli response to them, showed a remarkable Israeli operational improvement and PR evolution. A swift, quick campaign achieved all its operational objectives, while a strong and proactive media presence showed Israel’s side of the story, quickly countering misinformation coming out of Gaza. Nevertheless, the events also showed there are no easy solutions for the narrow strip, and the seasonal fighting is likely to break out again in the future.
Following the arrest of a senior West Bank-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader by Israel, the terrorist organization issued various threats, some of which Israeli intelligence determined to be imminent, of cross-border attacks from Gaza against Israel. The threats prompted the Israeli Defense Forces to initiate a military campaign aiming at neutralizing the threats from PIJ through targeted military strikes. The hostilities lasted for days, and while the IDF was able to score a remarkable operational success, the PIJ scored only a remarkable failure. The more than 1,100 rockets that the terrorist movement fired against Israel were either intercepted by the Iron Dome or failed to leave the strip, killing almost a third of all the casualties in Gaza, a sad metaphor of the Palestinian condition.
On the other hand, Israel was able to debilitate much of PIJ’s capabilities, neutralize many of its assets, and cripple its leadership. Moreover, Israeli government social media accounts and spokespersons were proactive in messaging and quickly correcting the media in its accounts and quickly exposing the source of the rocket, which killed several innocent Palestinian children to be the PIJ. The Gaza ruling terrorist organization, Hamas, avoided the fight and left PIJ to take the blow. Hamas, which had its own round of fighting with Israel last May, remained operationally absent and quiet as Israel hammered down the PIJ. Eventually, Qatari and Egyptian mediators were able to reach a cease-fire agreement returning the claim to the region to southern Israel.
When addressing Hamas’s behavior, most analysts either point to Hamas’s will to continue enjoying many of the economic easements provided to the strip by Israel or to Hamas’s will to watch the PIJ’s nails being clipped. While the PIJ lacks a parallel administrative and civil infrastructure to compete with that of Hamas on public support, leaving it always outside calculations of power, the PIJ’s strong military arm is too independent and too close to Iran. Also, Hamas has been enjoying better ties with Egypt and more rebuilding assistance from Qatar. Israeli leaders accepted this as a way of giving Hamas reasons to think twice before deciding to entangle the strip in a new round of open violence. This seems to have worked for now, but it is unclear when Hamas will feel the need to return to the headlines. Hamas now enjoys better access to Cairo, but it is still vastly limited and entirely determined by Egyptian pragmatism. Qatari assistance is indeed helping regenerate power and services for the strip, but it is fair to assume a portion of the construction material goes to bolster Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure. If there are Israeli leaders who put their bets on giving Hamas too much to lose, they are likely to lose. Islamic resistance is Hamas’s identity and what primarily distinguishes it from the PLO. If Hamas is to maintain its constituency in Gaza, the West Bank, and the region, not to mention international Islamist support, Hamas must maintain its militant and violent profile. This means another round of Gaza hostilities in the strip lies in the future once the conditions of conflict are there.
Two issues loom large, the future of the PLO’s leadership given the age of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Iranian threat. Both issues, the former more immediate than the latter, promise to alter the entire situation of the Gaza strip. Given the unpopularity of all possible names replacing Abbas, Hamas will have strong incentives to seek more popular support among the Palestinians, perhaps even contemplating making a move for its ultimate goal of replacing the PLO and finally becoming the uncontested beneficiary of the Palestinian cause. This will be a period of intense instability likely to raise the potential for intra-Palestinian violence significantly, some of which is likely to spillover into hostile actions against Israel.
As for Iran, as widely known, PIJ is part of the regional Iranian network of terror. The movement is the recipient of Iranian funds, estimated to be tens of millions of dollars annually, as well as logistical support. Senior PIJ leaders are known to visit Tehran frequently and to be close to the IRGC. Given the regional uncertainty about the potential nuclear future of Iran that is increasing with every passing day, PIJ must be taken into account when assessing Iranian deterrence against Israeli action and the possibility of a nuclear Iran trying to deter Israel from action in Gaza. This is already heavily weighing on Israeli calculations, as shown by the recent statements of Defense Minister Benny Gantz while commenting on Iranian ties to the strip that, “…we cannot rest. On the operational level — the State of Israel will maintain its freedom of action in all arenas.”
While it doesn’t seem that there are any easy solutions on the horizon for the problem of Gaza, Israel must take the uncertain future into account. Both the PIJ and Hamas are a threat that might be managed in the time being but has the potential to grow exponentially in the future. As it stands, the problems of Gaza cannot be separated from the threat of Iranian aggression and the nightmare scenario of nuclear Iran, and Israel must take all precautions against the Iranian ability to leverage Gaza in any potential confrontation with Israel.
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