The objectives and implications of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza during November 14-21, 2012, can only be assessed in the wider context of the new Middle East that has emerged from the earthquake known as the Arab Spring.
Israel’s Announced Objectives
The objectives defined by Israel’s top political leadership were rather modest. As articulated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the outset of the operation, they were to enhance Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas and other factions in Gaza; to deny Hamas and these other factions certain strategic capabilities, especially longer-range rockets; and to restore normalcy to the life of Israeli citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom had been driven into shelters by the daily barrage of rockets. Some claim these objectives were too modest; in actuality, they were well calibrated.
An asymmetric war against an organization such as Hamas, that is at one and the same time a terror organization, a political party, and a paramilitary group both nesting in civilian-populated areas and targeting civilians, constitutes a difficult challenge. Two different kinds of objectives may be set for such an operation. On the one hand, one can focus the objective on enhancing deterrence, namely, hit the terrorists hard enough to give them an interest in a ceasefire for as long as possible, deny them certain capabilities, and weaken their motivation to employ violence against you. On the other hand, one can set a more ambitious, maximalist objective of dismantling their terror capabilities. In this case, that would have entailed a ground operation in Gaza comparable to Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank at the height of the Second Intifada, which would have required very large-scale forces operating in Gaza for a long period.
Both in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead and in the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s government opted for the first objective, not the more ambitious one of dismantling Gaza’s terror infrastructure or even toppling the Hamas government. In 2008, the Israeli government debated the same issue. Although some officials pushed for a broader operation in Gaza, ultimately the government decided not to go too far, even though it did order a ground operation. The IDF had told the government that a Defensive Shield-type operation to eliminate Gaza’s terror infrastructure would take many months – some even said a year; and subsequently a difficult problem would arise: to whom would Gaza be handed over, and what would be Israel’s exit strategy?
The 2012 operation, carried out against the background of a dramatically transformed Middle East, posed even more complex challenges, including the possible undermining of the fragile peace with Egypt. Israel also faces uncertainties along its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon, and an ongoing critical situation regarding Iran’s nuclear program which may come to a head in a matter of months. Given all these considerations, the government was right to determine more limited objectives. It appears that the basic objective was achieved: Hamas was hit hard militarily, resulting for the time being in nearly absolute quiet along Israel’s border with Gaza.
Facing a Complex Aftermath
The realities, however, are still more nuanced and complex. What happened in Gaza is a microcosm of current developments in the Middle East, where new forces have arisen. The most prominent is political Islam, first and foremost the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt that must be taken into account when dealing with Gaza. When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008, the Hosni Mubarak-led Egyptian government quietly encouraged Israel to destroy Hamas, and expressed disappointment when this was not accomplished.
The situation now, of course, is different; Hamas is essentially the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in a sense heralded the rise of political Islam by winning the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections and then taking over Gaza in a bloody coup in June 2007. Whereas Mubarak’s government regarded Hamas as a threat to Egypt’s national security, the government of President Muhammad Morsi provides the Hamas regime with a political umbrella, and Israel was well aware that it had to maneuver in a different environment for Operation Pillar of Defense.
Moreover, an alignment of major Sunni powers in the region, including Qatar and Turkey, now joins Egypt and provides Hamas with an even wider umbrella. Already before Pillar of Defense, all these actors were helping Hamas break out of its political isolation and economic hardship. In October, the emir of Qatar made the first-ever state visit to Hamas in Gaza, pledging $450 million in financial support. Turkey, too, has given Hamas both political and financial support.
Major Sunni powers have been cooperating with the United States and the West on important issues and particularly against Iran and global jihadi elements; at the same time, these Sunni powers support Islamist actors in the region, including Islamist forces in Syria and Hamas in Gaza. In Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Qatar extended financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis funneled aid to the Salafists. Thus the West faces a serious challenge: major regional forces, that are considered allies in advancing and safeguarding important Western interests, support inherently anti-democracy and anti-West Islamists at the expense of more liberal national forces.
In the case of Hamas, there is a security advantage to this situation, alongside its very basic disadvantages. As evident during the recent crisis, Egypt would like to provide Hamas with political achievements. Yet, at the same time, as long as Cairo – sponsor to the ceasefire – wants to maintain a quiet border between Israel, Gaza, and Egypt and curb jihadi forces threatening the status quo there, and with Hamas having an affinity with the Morsi government contrary to its relations with Mubarak, the chances of Hamas upholding a ceasefire are greater, at least for the time being. In other words, a kind of trade-off emerges: Hamas offers quiet, and receives political and economic assistance from its supporters.
In the broader regional context, increased tensions along the Sunni-Shiite fault line constitute a major phenomenon in this new Middle East. It is evident almost everywhere – in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and even in Saudi Arabia where there is a significant Shiite minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province. It is all the more evident in the relations between the major Sunni powers and Iran. In this regard, however, Gaza is a very unique case. Hamas in Gaza, even though a Sunni movement, was part of the radical, mostly-Shiite axis led by Iran along with Syria and Hizbullah. But since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, with Hamas unable to support Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria, tensions have arisen between Hamas and Iran, with Hamas declining in favor and losing financial support. When it comes to fighting Israel, however, Iran continues to back Hamas.
Hence, even though Hamas has replaced its Iranian political and economic umbrella with a Sunni one provided by Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, it still receives weapons from Iran. And even though the Sunni and Shiite camps are fighting each other, both, in different ways, provide assistance to Hamas in standing against Israel.
Interestingly, whereas in the past the Iranians would never admit supplying weapons to Hamas in Gaza, following the recent crisis they have publicly and proudly taken credit for it, and Hamas leaders have openly acknowledged it as well. The Iranians’ new candor can be explained by their concern about the Sunni umbrella. They want the credit for what is perceived across the Arab world as a successful show of resistance by Hamas during Israel’s operation in Gaza, including the targeting of Tel Aviv. They want it to be known that they give Hamas a more important kind of aid; whereas the Sunni states may have extended some financial support to Hamas, what Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah mockingly called “a penny and a half,” Iran provides the real thing – weapons, enabling Hamas to carry out the resistance against Israel. In other words, it is Iran that does more for Hamas’ anti-Israel struggle.
Extremist Islamists on the Rise
The events in Gaza highlight another aspect of the Arab Spring: the unleashing of the energies not only of so-called mainstream Islamic political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, but also of more extreme Salafist and jihadi streams. Such groups are resurgent across the Middle East; in North Africa (including the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya), in Egypt (whose parliament now includes Salafists for the first time), in Jordan (which recently thwarted major jihadi terror attacks on its soil), in Iraq (experiencing a significant spike in the level of terrorism) and in Syria (where Jabhat Al-Nusra, an off-shoot of Iraqi al-Qaeda, is the most potent anti-Assad fighting force).
Over the past few years jihadi groups have also mushroomed in Gaza and Sinai, cooperating with each other in planning and perpetrating attacks against Israeli targets from both areas. Indeed, these jihadi groups’ provocations were the main cause of the escalation between Israel and Gaza. Hamas was drawn in so as to maintain its credentials as a resistance movement, until finally Israel was compelled to launch Operation Pillar of Defense.
At present the challenge, first and foremost for the Hamas government in Gaza, is to enforce a ceasefire on all these groups. That was one of the Israeli conditions when negotiating the ceasefire, and the Egyptian document announcing and sponsoring the ceasefire made it binding on all factions in Gaza, with Hamas bearing ultimate responsibility. If it has the requisite political will, Hamas is capable of guaranteeing the ceasefire. It is such political will that has been lacking so far, with Hamas trying to maneuver between its responsibilities as a government and its wish to sustain its standing as a resistance movement. Operation Pillar of Defense, however, compelled Hamas to make a choice, and so far the organization has been enforcing the ceasefire on all the other groups.
The Palestinian Authority in Decline?
Another aspect of the changes underway in the Middle East is the tension between Islamists and nationalists, and it is well evident in the Palestinian context. Although Hamas was decisively beaten militarily, in the political sphere it scored points, mainly because of the above-mentioned Sunni political and economic umbrella it receives. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority was totally marginalized during the Gaza crisis. While Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was in Cairo meeting with Morsi to work out the ceasefire terms, PA President Mahmoud Abbas tried to call Morsi – who would not take his call for five days. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Israel and Egypt to help craft the ceasefire, she visited Abbas in Ramallah for all of thirty minutes. It was also to extricate itself from this complete marginalization, exacerbated by the events in Gaza, that the Palestinian Authority went to the United Nations.
It remains to be seen how things will play out in the Palestinian context. Over the past few years, the West’s and Israel’s approach has been to highlight the differences between the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, on the one hand, and Gaza, on the other. It was to show that the nonviolent and potential partner for negotiations – the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank–could become a thriving entity under the stewardship of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with his institution building, while violent Gaza under Hamas, openly calling for the destruction of Israel, was isolated and declining. The regional transformation, however, has produced almost a reverse picture. While the entity in Gaza is still far from economic prosperity, it now enjoys Sunni investments and has emerged from isolation, whereas the West Bank entity is on the verge of economic collapse. It is as yet unclear whether these two entities can reconcile with each other.
Iron Dome and Imminent Threats
From a military standpoint, Operation Pillar of Defense was different from Operation Cast Lead in several significant ways. Since 2008, Hamas and other Gaza factions have expanded their rocket arsenals to include longer-range rockets. In 2008, Israeli intelligence estimated that all factions in Gaza possessed around five thousand rockets; by the outbreak of Pillar of Defense they were estimated to have ten to twelve thousand, including, for the first time, rockets that could reach Tel Aviv. Indeed, those rockets were used during the recent conflict, albeit in a symbolic fashion.
Israel, however, did not sit idly by between these two operations, and the cardinal development of this conflict was the amazingly successful performance of the Israeli-manufactured Iron Dome rocket-defense system. The deterrence achieved by Operation Cast Lead afforded Israel some time, and Israel used this time to develop Iron Dome with its remarkable 85-percent success rate achieved during Operation Pillar of Defense, providing both security and a sense of security to the Israeli population. That, moreover, was one of the major reasons Israel did not ultimately feel it had to launch a ground operation into Gaza. In the absence of Iron Dome, the pressure in Israel – in response to casualties and damage – may well have pushed the government into such an operation, as occurred during Cast Lead.
Israel also applied lessons about conducting an asymmetric war against a terror organization and a paramilitary force firing at civilians from civilian areas. Israel selected its targets very carefully, using precision-guided munitions. The amount of civilian casualties and collateral damage on the Palestinian side was notably lower than in previous rounds. Israel also invested a good deal in preparing the nonmilitary elements of such asymmetric warfare, including legal, humanitarian, and media aspects. Such wars involve perceptions, not only military hostilities. In this latest round, Israel did better in that regard as well; for example, during the fighting itself, Israel allowed eighty truckloads of humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
The Challenge from Iran’s Proxy: Hizbullah
What are the implications of this latest round of hostilities on the Iranian challenge? Assuming there is a strike on Iran, be it Israeli or American, and the Iranians respond with missiles and rockets, directly and through proxies such as Hizbullah, have lessons been learned that could be applied to such a confrontation? If there is a showdown with Iran and it entails confronting Hizbullah, the situation will be totally different because Hizbullah now possesses some seventy thousand rockets, including many more longer-range and heavier rockets than Hamas; as Nasrallah has bragged, hundreds of them could be launched at Tel Aviv. Iron Dome can only intercept rockets with a certain range, and Israel still lacks a system that can intercept longer-range rockets. Such a system, David’s Sling, is under development, but will only be operational in another two years at the earliest.
If, then, Israel comes to face such a challenge along its northern border, it will have to behave differently. It cannot allow itself to be dragged into a war of attrition where thousands of rockets target Israeli cities incessantly without an interception system to stop them. In that case, and also applying lessons from the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel may well have to attack the national Lebanese infrastructure that supports Hizbullah, and may feel compelled to launch a ground operation at an early stage.
Maintaining the Ceasefire: Egypt’s Key Role
There is now a ceasefire in place, and the parties are talking continuously via Egypt about a supportive envelope of arrangements. This phase is critical. The most important element is to stop the smuggling of weapons through Egypt into Gaza. Those longer-range rockets did not fall from heaven; they came from somewhere and made their way through Egyptian soil. After Operation Cast Lead, Israel worked out understandings with the United States and Egypt about stopping the smuggling, but not much was done. The present government in Cairo must be persuaded that its own interest entails preventing this smuggling; the alternative is ongoing, intermittent warfare along its border. Such clashes also energize jihadi and other groups that Egypt does not want to be empowered. Thus, a key challenge is to get Egypt to do a better job in stopping the arms smuggling.
For example, the Fajr-5 rockets, some of which were launched at Tel Aviv, are each 6.5 meters long. Although these rockets are disassembled on their way to Gaza, then reassembled there, they are heavy rockets with heavy launchers; why, then, did no one observe them on their way to the border? The routes used for such smuggling (mostly coming from Libya and Sudan) are not that many and there must be a way to stop it.
Although Hamas, for its part, would like to see the lifting of what it calls the siege, it is not to be expected that the crossings between Israel and Gaza will turn from normally closed to normally open. After all, Gaza is a hostile entity. Even before Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was allowing an average of over two hundred truckloads of goods and medical supplies to enter Gaza daily.
Moreover, the Rafah crossing is open to people, and goods can pass through the Israeli crossing at Kerem Shalom. Indeed, both parties have agreed to allow the entry of construction materials to Gaza through the Rafah crossing on an ad hoc basis. At the same time, huge quantities of merchandise regularly pass through the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, providing Hamas with a massive source of income. Tunnel owners have to register with Hamas authorities and pay taxes on anything that goes through. The issue, then, is not really one of lifting a siege. It is about being able to claim that Hamas has been victorious in resisting Israel and has gained something from the conflict. What should concern Israel first and foremost, however, is the arms smuggling, and that entails getting Egypt to do more.
In sum, Operation Pillar of Defense exemplifies how Israel has to cope with old, new, and emerging challenges to its national security in a much more complex environment than in the past, one characterized by dramatic changes and rising new negative forces
From a lecture on the subject at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs