Although there’s still some political jockeying to do before we see a ceasefire, indications are that the IDF is getting close to completing its stated military objective in Gaza—neutralization of the threat of infiltration by tunnel, Hamas declarations of bravado notwithstanding. As such, with the assumption that the conflict is heading into its endgame, it’s time to take stock of what we can learn from the latest level of Hamas-Israel strategic interactions.
a. In the short-term at least, the rise of Sunni-Shia (and other) sectarian warfare in the Levant and Iraq seems to have improved Israeli security interests. At this point the Syrian regime has its hands full with the various forces fighting the regime within Syria. Hezbollah is heavily invested in that fight, and perhaps even in Iraq, and simultaneously seeking to prevent sectarian spillover from getting out of control in a country that has seen civil war before. Neither party wants to risk losing control of its country over a fight with Israel. Survival comes first. Iran as well, although one of Hamas’s only backers, has had to deal with the rise of ISIS in Iraq, which threatens the Iraqi-Iranian alliance, as well as the Assad regime propped up by Tehran. In short, when Hamas fights with Israel, it is fighting alone, and from one border.
b. The Arab Spring as well, at present, seems to be advancing Israeli interests. Israeli has probably never had a more overtly friendly regime in Cairo than the current one. Not only has Sisi established control and continued to work to flush out terrorism in the Sinai (which threatens Egyptian security interests), but the ousting of Morsi and his Islamist allies prevented the kind of uneasy alliance that Mubarak had with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As such, regional politics being what they are, Sisi is staunchly against Hamas (aligned with the Brotherhood) and Qatar (backer of both the Brotherhood and Hamas); most recently Turkish-Egyptian relations have soured over similar political lines.
At the same time, the GCC members (excluding Qatar) have sided with Sisi from the beginning. Opposed to Hamas and the Brotherhood (not over strictly ideological lines as the NYT wrongly implies, but due to political control and alliance issues), even as the US has seemed to move farther away from Israel than ever, the Saudi-led GCC members seem to have more common interests than ever with Israel. It’s still not fashionable to be overtly pro-Israel in the Gulf, but read between the lines and there’s a clear aligning of interests.
That leaves the Iran-Iraq (Maliki)-Syria (Assad)-Lebanon (Hezbollah) alliance, with that group’s resources devoted to internal stability issues, as noted above. Turkey is somewhat alone—it’s relations with Iraq and Syria strained over border issues resulting from civil war there, feuding with Egypt and the GCC members due to Erdogan’s ideological support for the MB and Hamas, leaves it in a strange alliance with Iran and Qatar, and surprisingly with less behind-the-scenes regional shared interest allies than Israel. One wonders too how much longer Qatar will continue to strain its relationship with the other GCC members over an organization (the Brotherhood) that seems unlikely to return to power anytime soon.
c. Moving closer to home, there are several reasons for concern on the Israeli side. Hamas’s rocket arsenal, although reaching most of the Israeli population, had little strategic impact. Lack of accuracy in targeting, the Iron Dome and other defense infrastructure and procedures kept casualties and damage unexpectedly low. Equally key, Israelis did not seem “terrorized.” People took to social media in a number of amusing ways, and Hamas’s attacks did not have their desired effects.
However, we can expect that Hamas, which has proven to be durable and dynamic, will look to supplement its rockets with innovations in tactics, to try to find a weapon that will instill fear in the hearts of Israelis. The security establishment will have to be proactive rather than reactive to thwart the threat from Hamas.
d. On the tunnel front, it’s safe to say that we have not seen the last of the tunnels. The IDF may have located and destroyed all of the tunnels heading into Israel (even that isn’t a given), but the digging will recommence about as soon as the last soldier turns around. A ceasefire agreement alone will do nothing to change that; Hamas isn’t likely to be bound by anything as petty as an international agreement.
As such, increased vigilance on the southern front with Gaza is an imperative for the Israeli security establishment, starting now. Israel doesn’t want hostilities every 2-4 years any more than the international community does (probably less so). Until a long-term strategy for dealing with Hamas presents itself (possibly, but not necessarily, involving working with the PA and Mahmoud Abbas to advance a peace deal), the threat from Hamas is at best a dormant volcano, if not a ticking bomb.
e. The Israeli government needs to be held responsible for its end of the escalation leading up to the hostilities. Setting aside duplicitous information provided about the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers, a series of decisions led to the escalation and eventual military operation and ground incursion. If it was Israel’s intent from the beginning to trigger an escalation with Hamas, the government should explain why. And if it wasn’t, there seems to have been a serious misjudgment of Hamas’s decision-making and Palestinian politics which the intelligence community and government advisors should explain.
f. Once Israel announced its ground invasion, following Hamas’s use of a tunnel to infiltrate Israel (and likely an attempt to goad Israel into expanding the escalation), and the stated goals of destroying all of the tunnels, Hamas was forced into a “use it or lose it” approach for its tunnels leading to Israel. There was a limited time frame to use those tunnels before they’d be destroyed. Until the last one is located, security forces near the border with Gaza have to be extra vigilant given the almost guaranteed threat. (Practically speaking the enhanced vigilance must outlive the current hostilities given that there is no guarantee as to whether all tunnel shafts have been located or when new ones will be completed)
g. The short and long-term effects of a two-pronged operation (aerial followed by ground invasion) ostensibly dedicated to restoring peace and security need to be considered. It’s highly unlikely that Israel will have managed to “restore deterrence” with Hamas, given the failure of prior military operations to do so (and Hamas has far more “victories” to claim in this one than in previous operations).
Hamas leaders played to the extremists within their party. They have likely alienated regular Gazans even more than pre-war (when 50% unemployment was the main concern); reports of public protests against Hamas in Gaza recently being a key indicator. However that has come at the cost to Israel of triggering another wave of anti-Israel frenzy on social media, at the UN, in mainstream media and in international relations, as well as an unprecedented wave of virulent antisemitism throughout Europe.
More importantly, Hamas will almost definitely see an upswing in support from Palestinians in the West Bank, while the PA loses ground. Mahmoud Abbas has walked a difficult political tightrope over the last 6 weeks, arguably far better than any Israeli politician has. Yet his reward for that may be a drop in ratings from his electorate. Recently Abbas moved his own family out of Ramallah, his home base, out of security fears. A day later massive rallies in the West Bank led to violent altercations with Israeli police and security, and several deaths. The next day saw more of the same, before a series of ceasefires seems to have cooled the intensity. It’s very likely that the security situation for Jews in the West Bank is now far worse than it was prior to Israel’s locking up of Hamas members as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper.
h. David Horovitz surmises that concern about Iran may be holding Netanyahu back from authorizing a full military assault designed to remove Hamas from power. If anything, I think the opposite is true.
Bibi has spent the last few years telling anyone who will listen that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, to peace in the region and in the world. The threat from Hamas was arguably negligible, certainly not existential. Israel can weather rockets from Hamas, as evidenced by the fact that we just did so (almost of this war’s casualties have come from ground operations against Hamas in Gaza).
The choice to pursue a war that would almost certainly set back efforts to harness international support for stopping Iran’s nuclear pursuit likely indicates one of two things. Either Bibi has implicitly admitted that the threat of a nuclear Iran is not the existential one that he publicly states it is (in politics deeds and decisions speak louder than words). Or Israel has seen enough of the West-led negotiations with Iran and abandoned hope that the process will lead to an outcome palatable to Israel, resigning itself to the possibility of acting alone. In the latter case, bolstered relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and a clear indication of where the interests lie, only benefit Israel’s future grand-strategy.