By Haim MalkaNov 16, 2012
On the afternoon of November 14, Israel launched a wide-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. The operation started with a targeted missile strike killing Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of Hamas’s military apparatus. It continued with aerial bombings of Hamas military targets, operatives, and installations, including rocket launching sites. In response, Hamas and other Gaza-based militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, including several that reached the Tel Aviv area. The risk of further escalation is growing.
Q1: Why did Israel launch the military operation in Gaza?
A1: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) command stated that Israel’s objectives were to weaken Hamas’s military command and control system and limit its ability to threaten Israel’s population with a growing arsenal of rockets. Unlike Israel’s previous military incursions into Gaza in 2008–2009 and Lebanon in 2006, Israel’s political and military leadership have articulated relatively modest goals for the operation.
There are several layers to Israel’s actions. First, the informal cease-fire between Israel and Hamas reached in the aftermath of the 2008–2009 war has steadily eroded over the last year. Over 700 rockets and mortars have fallen in Israel in the last year alone. Clashes between the IDF and Gaza militants affiliated with Hamas and other groups have intensified, and in the week before the operation Gaza militants fired over 120 rockets and mortars into Israeli towns. In the same week an antitank missile fired from Gaza hit an IDF jeep patrol along the border, wounding four soldiers. Moreover, Israel has been increasingly concerned with the number of longer-range rockets in Gaza’s arsenal.
For the last several years, Gaza’s Hamas government has been careful to distance itself from the rocket attacks. Instead, it has permitted smaller militant groups to launch rockets and plan military operations, including kidnapping IDF soldiers deployed along the border. Recently, however, Hamas has claimed responsibility for several rounds of rocket and mortar fire into Israel, which suggested that the informal cease-fire between Hamas and Israel had eroded.
Second, the recent escalation of rocket fire from Gaza pushed the Israeli government and the IDF to try to restore its deterrence vis-à-vis Gaza and demonstrate that, despite the delicate regional political environment, it remains willing to use overwhelming force to protect its interests. In this sense, the Gaza operation sends a signal not only to Hamas but to Israel’s other enemies as well.
Q2: Why did Hamas risk breaking the informal cease-fire with Israel?
A2: The Hamas government’s overall objective is maintaining stability and control of the Gaza Strip. It recently hosted the emir of Qatar and is working to slowly expand international recognition and secure additional funding for its mini-state. Turkey’s president recently indicated his intention to visit the Gaza Strip, which would be a diplomatic victory for Hamas given Turkey’s membership in NATO.
Despite these broad objectives, the internal balance of power in Gaza is changing. Hamas remains in control, but Salafi and jihadi cells are growing stronger. Some have infiltrated from the Sinai Peninsula, which has become a breeding ground for terrorist cells, while others are homegrown in Gaza. These groups pose a threat to Hamas’s rule in Gaza, and Hamas has at times restrained the operations of these groups against Israel and even confronted them when necessary. In claiming responsibility for recent waves of attacks, Hamas tried to bolster its position within Gaza and deflect internal pressure.
Beyond the internal dynamics, Hamas was attempting to reset the rules of its previous cease-fire with Israel. That cease-fire has been plagued by differing interpretations by both Hamas and Israel. Hamas wanted to maintain the freedom to plan attacks and military operations during the cease-fire even as it mostly refrained from firing rockets. Secondly, it wanted to assert its ability to respond to every military incident or IDF action on the Gaza border.
Q3: How will the military operation affect Egypt-Israel relations?
A3: Egypt-Israel relations have been tense since President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt entered office last year. High-level diplomatic contacts are practically nonexistent, and officials in the president’s office are barred from contact with their Israeli counterparts. Senior-level intelligence contacts have also deteriorated. The sole channel of regular communication is through the military liaison, which coordinates tactical cooperation along the Egypt-Israel border.
President Morsi has said that Israel will pay a heavy price if it continues the military assault on Gaza, and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has called on Morsi to reassess relations with Israel. So far, the response has been fairly mild. Within several hours of the operation, Egypt recalled its ambassador, who had only recently arrived in Israel, for consultations. The Egyptian prime minister also made a short visit to Gaza in a show of solidarity. Still, domestic pressure on Morsi is likely to mount should the military operation escalate, potentially jeopardizing what diplomatic contacts remain between Israel and Egypt. Israeli officials across the political and security establishment are concerned by their changing relationship with Egypt and lack of high-level communication. Nonetheless, they felt that the risks of continued rocket fire into Israel outweighed those of a deeper rupture with Egypt. Despite bilateral tension, Egypt will play an important role in resolving this latest round of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Q4: Is there an exit strategy?
A4: The longer the military operation continues, the riskier it becomes. For one, a shrinking set of targets heightens the risk of bombings that kill civilians, which would raise the political and diplomatic costs of the campaign for Israel. Second, despite three days of aerial bombardment, Hamas has demonstrated that it can continue to launch rockets into Israel, including longer-range rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In response, Israel has mobilized 16,000 reserve troops in preparation for a possible ground campaign in Gaza. This carries risks in terms of higher casualties on both sides, at a time when Israel is preparing for elections in January 2013.
While Israel sees Hamas as a threat, it has an interest in maintaining a central authority in Gaza that can check the power of other militant groups, which have more radical ideologies than Hamas and are less pragmatic. The outcome of the fighting is likely to resemble that of the 2008–2009 Gaza war, which led to a renewed cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. That campaign lasted nearly three weeks. How long it will take Israel and Hamas to reach a similar understanding and at what cost will only become clearer in the days ahead.
Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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