Notification: In this article’s original version, I wrote of an Islamic Jihad multi-barreled rocket launcher that fired into Israel. The video of such a weapons system did come from Islamic Jihad, however, the IDF claimed no such attack from this weapon had occurred. The IDF claimed the video was a deception and according to Arutz Sheva, was filmed in Libya or Lebanon.
Rocket attacks from Gaza aren’t new, yet the current escalation contains aspects of new strategic realities sweeping the region. The Grad attack on Ashdod last Wednesday was carried out by Islamic Jihad, not Hamas. This attack and the later tit for tat rocket barrages illustrate the complex strategic situation in the Gaza Strip.
Islamic Jihad has been on Israel’s radar for years. It’s a notoriously violent terror organization with ties to Iran. In fact, Islamic Jihad is closer to Iran than is Hamas. The organization’s Grad attack on Ashdod was a clear message to Hamas. Most would assume that Islamic Jihad’s attack was solely to confront Israel. However, the most notable target was Egypt at the behest of Iran.
Since Mubarak’s collapse, Hamas has improved ties with Egypt. Egypt’s military junta is in a need for allies and legitimacy. Given the broad hostility for Israel in Egyptian society, supporting Hamas offers some legitimacy from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Hamas supporters. The Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, not the secularists and sympathy from this entity provides notable political leverage.
Iran sees Egypt’s courting of Hamas as a threat to its strategic interests. To many, this may seem a welcoming development. However, the rise of Islamists in Egypt, coupled with consistent anti-Israel sentiment, dampens any possibility of a more moderate Hamas. Hamas’s burgeoning ties with Cairo do not signal a change of its approach to Israel.
The prisoner exchange deal between Hamas, Egypt, and Israel shed light upon the improving relationship between Hamas and Cairo. Hamas is riding high from its ability to release 1027 terrorists from Israeli jails. While Iran would have lauded such a victory in earlier times, it now seeks to undermine the second phase of this exchange. Unfortunately for Iran, Hamas is in need of new support due to the emerging civil war in Syria. Hamas is Sunni and ironically the uprising in Syria is led by the Sunni majority. For decades, Hamas received broad political and military support from the Alawite Assad regime in Damascus. Hamas finds itself in a difficult position. Does it continue to support the Assad regime or side with the rebellious Sunni majority? For Hamas; Egypt and Turkey could be their way out, if the situation in Damascus doesn’t stabilize.
The Islamic Jihad attacks were all launched with Grad missiles. The organization used heavy Grad 122 mm rockets and not the smaller and less accurate Qassams. By firing all longer range Grads, including from a multi-barreled and mobile rocket launcher, the organization flexes its muscles. Usually Gaza’s terror groups use portable single-tube launchers that could be easily concealed and transported. The strategic effect of firing each rocket is limited as the damage isn’t concentrated. Firing mass volleys from multi-barreled launchers is how Grad rockets were intended to be used. This offers greater damage in a smaller area. The proliferation of multi-barreled rocket launchers is a game changer.
The video showing the multi-barreled Grad launcher that volleyed a salvo into Israel is telling. This weapon system illustrates Islamic Jihad now obtains weaponry of greater sophistication and power than Hamas. Like other Salafists in Gaza, Islamic Jihad is attempting to bring about a strong retaliation from Israel against Hamas. The idea is to create a new round of fighting that would disrupt any success Egypt and Hamas could garner from the recent Shalit deal. On the battlefield, Islamic Jihad was testing Israel’s response. Mostly all rocket attacks on Israel are strategic at the same time tactical. They entail range-finding, target marking, measuring Israel’s response time, and degree of retaliation.
The fact Hamas has once again stayed out of the current escalation means it looks to avoid a new round of fighting. Hamas is still reeling from its 2009 war against Israel and at the moment, doesn’t want a repeat. Challenging Hamas rule is commonplace by smaller and more radical groups pushing for greater confrontation with Israel. These organizations aren’t responsible for governance, thus confrontation is attractive and carries less risk. Additionally, Hamas has found new success from the prisoner exchange deal with Israel. They realize that further escalation could disrupt the second part of this deal, which would see the release of over 500 Arab terrorists. If this deal were disrupted, Hamas’s image would be tainted.
What should Israel’s response be? Should it adopt a cease-fire or attempt to reestablish its deterrence in the Gaza Strip? These are difficult questions and should be made devoid of personal feelings and emotions. There are major strategic concerns at play, thus Israel’s response must be well-informed.
For years Hamas has struggled to maintain its grip on the Gaza Strip. The past few months have seen Hamas’s opponents escalating the conflict with Israel. This is a direct affront to Hamas rule. Challenge to Hamas rule in Gaza is only increasing, as we saw this week. A weakened Hamas and a later power struggle provides an opportunity for Israel.
As the dominant regional power, Israel must regain the initiative in Gaza. Israel should make it clear that it will control the level of escalation, not Gaza’s terror groups. If Israel continues with tit for tat responses to missile salvos, the Jewish state looks weak and undoubtedly will lose its deterrent effect. One thing is clear, militants in Gaza are only getting stronger. While Hamas may be losing its ability to control the strip, this doesn’t mean they or Gaza’s other factions aren’t acquiring more advanced weaponry. Indeed these organizations are conducting an impressive military build-up; including longer range rockets, anti-aircraft missiles from Libya, etc. Given the strife in Gaza, Israel ought to use the infighting for its own strategic benefit.
At present, the situation doesn’t call for a major military operation. With that being said, this situation could worsen and quickly. The tit for tat violence in the south mustn’t be tolerated. It’s only a matter of time, if rocket fire persists, that Israelis will pressure the government for a major military operation in the Gaza Strip. Without a doubt, Israel has the capability and firepower to defeat any opposition in Gaza, but Israel could use this force as an ultimatum for Hamas. In the face of a war with Israel, Hamas will back down. It is not strong enough nor ready for war with Israel. In 2008, the group was overconfident and blind to its strategic imbalance with Israel. In 2008 Hamas sought to defend territory and inflict heavy casualties upon Israel’s civilian population. Their strategy derived from Hezbollah’s perceived successes in the Second Lebanon War. However, Hamas is not Hezbollah and Gaza is not Lebanon, nor was IDF the same in 2008 as it was in 2006.
Hamas’s strategy failed miserably. It failed to hold any ground and inflicted little damage on Israel’s civilian population. Rather than calling for a halt to an Israeli operation, many Israelis wished the government would have finished the job by delivering a decisive blow to Hamas. Hamas has realized its limitations, despite the propaganda, and knows it cannot afford a war with Israel. Therefore, Israel must use Hamas’s unwillingness for a new round of fighting against the ambitions of Gaza’s minority terror groups’ willingness to do so.
If Hamas continues to seek calm in the face of Islamic Jihad, PFLP, or DFLP rocket attacks and Israel’s response to them, infighting will only increase. Israel must take advantage of this situation and fuel tensions in the Strip. For Israel, all Gaza’s organizations are non-starters for negotiations. Thus, Israel would like to see them all weakened.
It would be nice to see an emerging entity within the Gaza Strip that was sympathetic to keeping the border permanently quiet. However, no such organization can be found nor does it seem one will emerge in the near future. Make no mistake, Hamas’s ceasefire with Israel is only a hudna. It is temporary and agreed upon for strategic reasons. By controlling the level of escalation, like it did this week, Israel can play the many factions off against each other. Islamic Jihad likely hoped Israel would respond to its attack by hitting Hamas. Rather, the IDF struck the Islamic Jihad, killing five terrorists, including two commanders.
The conditions are ripe for Gaza’s infighting to increase. Egypt, Iran, and Turkey are vying for influence and Gaza is their tool. Hamas’s political peak from the Shalit deal won’t last long. Political tensions and conflict with Israel will only exacerbate tensions. Israel must develop a campaign that seeks to weaken all parties within the Strip. All of them are vehemently anti-Israel and devoted to its destruction. If Gaza’s terror organizations turn their guns on each other, the ensuing chaos might be too much for Hamas to handle. Fueling the power struggle in Gaza is in Israel’s national security interest. Instead of Israel delivering a series of crushing blows in the Strip, the Jewish state should let Gazans do it themselves.