How Israel misjudged Hamas – and its own Arab population
By Amir Oren
Because of its intensity, it may seem much longer, but at the crack of dawn Wednesday a mere day and a half have passed since the first sirens wailed in Jerusalem, signalling the start of the latest round in the exchange of blows between Israel and Hamas, with both sides in agreement on one dimension, nicknaming it Operation Guardian of the Walls and Operation Jerusalem Saber. At this stage, before outside intervention or mediation brings about a ceasefire, or alternatively an escalation adds boots and booby-traps to missile barrages and bombing sorties, here are some interim insights.
- Asymmetry reigns supreme. The parties to the confrontation are obviously unequal militarily, with Israel having F-35’s, Armor Divisions and whatever was hatched at the Dimona nuclear reactor over the last six decades against the so-called “Terror Army” of rockets and raiders. Cyber vs. Saber. But it is asymmetrical in another sense, of governance, and here Hamas has an advantage, because it has an iron grip on Gaza. Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller rogue groups challenge Hamas at their peril. In Israel, however, the government has chosen to be weak, meekly reacting to initiatives and provocations by radical groups such as those which ignited the latest chain of events in the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
- Intelligence is not enough. The Israeli Intelligence community can hardly be proud of its performance in this crisis, but it deserves to be acquited of the charges superficially lobbed at it. No single entity is in charge of assessing the intentions of the various Palestinian elements. SHABAK, the Internal Security Agency, focuses on foiling terror. AMAN, the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, competes with SHABAK in the business of analysing and predicting decision making in Gaza and the West Bank and stock-taking military capabilities there for both offensive and defensive planning. The Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, MATPASH in Hebrew, is in touch with the civilian Palestinian population and reports about its mood, indicators and implications. The National Police has jurisdiction over Jerusalem, as well as all areas within Israel’s borders – except when there is information regarding insurgency or insurrection, which it co-leads with SHABAK. Complicated enough, but even when there emerges a common Intelligence picture, it is almost useless when the political echelon ignores it for other, and partly ulterior reasons. The government may, and this time apparently did, by sins of commission and omission, decide despite of the Intelligence presented to it.
- Conflict continuation is costly. Succeeding Israeli governments have resisted making an all-out effort to solve the generations-long conflict with the Palestinians. There is a certain rationale behind it – the Palestinian front may be the core of the broader Arab-Israeli (or Moslem-Jewish) conflict involving Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and more recently Iran, and its resolution could have negative consequences, withdrawal symptoms, when applied to other fronts – at least as viewed by some parties in power in Jerusalem. This, however, is not the main reason for the Israeli reluctance to embrace a permanent status deal. For many Israelis, perhaps a majority of the electorate, this deal’s cost in uprooting upward of 100,000 settlers (depending on the make-up of the territorial swap with the Palestinian State to be established) is prohibitive. They would rather drag out the conflict and hope to pay little or no price. This upshot is that every once in a while a cost is being charged, and the Israeli body politic is yet to calculate whether this installment plan, or mortgage, demands more or less of its material and mental resources.
- Friction fast-forwards to fire. The explosive mix of religion and politics is a main ingredient of both internal Israeli mechanism (Likud’s dependence on Orthodox and Zionist-Religious parties) and Palestinian tug-of-war between Fatah and Hamas. It all boils down to the Holy City, Temple Mount, Ramadan, Jerusalem Day – and then it blows up. A wiser Israeli leadership would have handled it differently. For instance, Jerusalem Day, marking the unification of Israel’s capital in 1967, does not have to be celebrated in the city itself, but rather should be spread around the country. But such advice is shunned by politicians fearful of fighting provocateurs.
- Attrition, with or without occupation. Israelis do not want to re-occupy Gaza, though they believe that their presence in much of the West Bank, along with security coordination with the Palestinan Authority ruling most urban areas, is essential to maintain surveillance and control there. Both Israel and Hamas base their assumptions on the understanding of Israel’s preference of fire over manoeuvr. For the last seven years Hamas has held onto the remains of two Israeli soldiers, signaling that a similar fate could await their brothers-in-arms should they invade the strip. Israel is thus beset by a cruel dilemma. A war of attrition runs counter to its basic national security doctrine, yet it seems addicted to it, unable to kick the habit cold turkey. A ground campaign will severely punish Hamas and may gain Israel another respite, but no longer-term solution. When the dust settles, nothing else will.
- The end game will not be the end, just a commercial brake. The outline for a political framework underpinning a ceasefire will not surprise anyone. Once the Egyptian Intelligence officers handling the Gaza file summon SHABAK and Hamas senior representatives to Cairo for proximity talks, backed by frantic phone calls from Washington, the Pillar of Defense Understandings of 2012 will re-emerge, as they did in the 2014 Opetation Defensive Edge, entailing mutual promises to abstain from strikes across the fence plus assistance to Gaza. The only surprise would be if they are finally implemented, rather than waiting for another campaign in a couple of years.
- The internal intifada. Arab riots in many mixed-communities and traffic arteries shocked Israel no less than the missiles near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The illusion that for economic reasons the second-class citizens of Israel will play the role of bystanders when their brethren carry on Palestinian and Moslem causes has been shattered. Picking up the pieces will be at the top of the agenda for the ever-elusive next government, as part of a deeper task of soul-searching. This week’s confrontation pales when compared to Israel’s wars and Intifadas, but coming on top of them, it paints a stark picture of a severe identity crisis.