In the perennial faceoff between Israel and various armed organizations, the distance between cyclical violence and full-on war can be measured by how well the players adhere to unwritten, yet clearly understood, rules of the game.
Attempts to change those rules often precipitate a slide from low- to high-intensity combat, and force action by Washington and the international community to prevent the conflict from spreading.
Such implicit codes of conduct are routinely used to manage border disputes among enemy states, but they present unique challenges when nation-states share playing fields with terrorist organizations and nonstate actors.
Examples North and South
For Israel, where established rules of the game govern continuing conflicts with Gaza-based Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, challenges are compounded by wild cards in a strategically shifting region.
In the south, Israel faces the rookie regime of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood leader surprised many by playing a stabilizing role in Israel’s eight-day war in Gaza in November, but he has yet to prove he can rein in Hamas’ allies and stop arms from flowing into Gaza through Sinai, a key term of the Nov. 21 ceasefire.
Up north, seasoned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is struggling to survive after two years of murderous civil war. Given Assad’s routine shelling of Syrian villages and his use of Scud missiles against his own people, Israelis can no longer count on him to play by their rules, assuming he still has the desire or capacity to do so.
Another case in point: Assad surprised many in Tel Aviv by publicly blaming Israel for a Jan. 30 airstrike northeast of Damascus that was meant to stop sophisticated air defenses from moving across the border to Lebanon. Under clearly understood rules of the game, Israel reserves the right to act in self-defense to pre-empt nuclear threats in the region or the transfer of so-called game-changing arms to Hezbollah. Such game-changers include chemical weapons, advanced air defense systems, long-range Scud missiles and Yakhont-class shore-to-sea missiles, according to Amos Yadlin, a retired major general who directed Israeli military intelligence during and after Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war.
“All these are supplied to Syria by Iran and Russia,” Yadlin said, “and all key players understood that Israel would be justified” in preventing their transfer to Hezbollah.
Under those same rules, Israel remains mum about such pre-emptive violations of Syrian sovereignty so as to spare Assad embarrassment that could force him to retaliate. For example, Israel has classified as top secret and subject to military censor the details of a September 2007 strike on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria and at least two other operations.
In Israel’s eyes, Assad’s nationally televised account of the late January strike — which he insisted was aimed not at arms en route to Lebanon, but rather a military research center — marked a dangerous departure from established rules, one that could lead to a new Israeli war in the north.
Operation Pillar of Defense
Last year’s hostilities between Israel and armed organizations in Gaza illustrated the escalation that can result when the unwritten rules are broken.
Over the first quarter of 2012, Israel conducted 26 targeted killings — the preferred euphemism for aerial assassination — in Gaza. One of those missions, the March 3 killing of two members of the Popular Resistance Committee, which Israeli officials said was planning an imminent combined terrorist attack via Sinai, appeared to draw intense retaliation: a three-day, 130-rocket barrage that closed schools and disrupted the lives of the million or so Israelis living within about 40 kilometers of the Gazan border. Israel responded to the barrage with more targeting killings, plus two airstrikes against so-called terrorist infrastructure.
There was also a warning, from Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, who was at the time the officer with command responsibility for Israel’s southern areas surrounding the strip. To return calm to the area, Russo said, the Israel Defense Forces might need to conduct a “larger- and wider-scale” operation.
The next barrage arrived in June. After six Israeli airstrikes in 18 days, Gazan forces fired more than 75 rockets on June 19-21. In turn, Israel launched one strike on June 22 and one on June 23.
In all, Israel appears to have conducted at least 41 aerial strikes and pre-emptive operations against targets in Gaza during the year up to mid-November. Then, on Nov. 14, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day campaign that included some 1,500 air strikes.
In explaining the decision to go to war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was responding to “days and weeks” of rocket attacks that “had made normal life impossible” for the more than a million Israelis living within a 40-kilometer radius of the coastal strip.
“No government would tolerate a situation where nearly one-fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rocket and missile fire,” Netanyahu said.
But what distinguished Pillar of Defense from the previous cycles of violence, which were no less threatening to Israelis within rocket range? The answer, according to military planners and defense officials, is the brazen and persistent way in which Hamas tried to alter rules of the game.
“There wasn’t a certain point that automatically triggered the operation. Rather, during September and October we were in a process where they were constantly testing us,” said a senior military planner on the IDF general staff. “We understood they were trying to change the rules of the game.”
In after-action interviews, Israeli security sources cited three such attempts. The first had to do with targeted killings, and was less about changing the rules than Hamas’ misinterpretation of the operational environment.
In the first seven months of 2012, the IDF conducted dozens of missions aimed at killing specific members of Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committee and other less dominant groups operating in the strip. Hamas members were spared Israeli crosshairs, not “because of some newfound affinity for the organization,” a security source said, but rather because Hamas had subcontracted out resistance operations in order to lower its profile during the first half of last year.
“Hamas defined the rule that as long as we struck Islamic Jihad or other operatives, that was OK. But we never agreed to such a rule,” an IDF operations officer said. “So when there were events during August, September and October that justified targeting their people, Hamas decided they could no longer keep quiet. They began responding with rocket fire.”
The second attempt pertained to mortar fire at Israeli military targets and civilians within seven kilometers of the Gazan border, the so-called Gaza envelope. Israel keeps persistent, multiple layers of manned and unmanned air coverage over the Gaza Strip, using the Canopy of Fire operating concept perfected in recent years. The moment militants are detected in the act of firing, Israel’s closed-loop sensor-to-shooter capabilities strike them down.
The senior military planner said Hamas sought to exempt mortar launches from this automatic retaliation.
“That rule has been part of our Canopy of Fire concept since Cast Lead,” Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 war in Gaza, he said. “At some point in mid-2012, they decided they no longer wanted to abide by this. So any time we struck these mortar launchers, the next morning, we’d be treated to a salvo of 70 or so rockets. … Needless to say, it was getting out of hand.”
The third attempt to change the rules involved the 300-meter no-go zone that Israel enforces beyond its heavily fortified fence on the Gazan border.
“They wanted to challenge our buffer zone and limit our area of activity beyond the fence,” the senior military planner said. “Any time we operated at the edge of the perimeter, they would respond with rocket fire the next morning.”
He said, “In the face of all these things — and in the face of their continuous attempts to re-arm with increasingly capable rockets and missiles, mostly from Iran — we understood that we would have to go for an operation that would realign the situation anew.”
The senior military planner said the Pillar of Defense operation was conceived and executed as a surgical standoff campaign. It was never meant to vanquish Hamas or reoccupy Gaza, although Israel was ready to use the 60,000 reserve forces called up and poised for ground war had Hamas “not internalized the message,” the planner said.
Rather, he said, Pillar of Defense aimed to return the system to its established order and improve conditions for the next time around.
“We didn’t seek drastic change; just improvement. We understood that we had to reset the pedometer,” said the officer, an avid long-distance runner.
To understand what motivated Hamas in these attempts, Maj. Guy Aviad of the IDF’s History Department suggests looking beyond the narrow Israel-Gaza playing field to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the civil revolt that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and transformed the Muslim Brotherhood from outlaw organization to ruler of Egypt.
Post-revolution elections in early 2011 delivered 70 percent of the Egyptian parliament to Brotherhood and Salafi parties. In June, Morsi was elected president.
Those two events emboldened Hamas in its faceoff against Israel, said Aviad, the IDF’s in-house expert on Hamas and the author of “The Hamas Lexicon,” published by Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
“Morsi’s election marked a turning point for Hamas. It signaled that Israel’s hands would be tied while they — the natural allies of the ruling power in Egypt — had a tailwind at their backs,” Aviad said. “From June 2012 until the start of Pillar of Defense last November, Hamas struggled to impose new rules that better suited them.”
Scorecard and Lessons
In addition to demanding exemption from Israeli airstrikes and attempts to reduce Israel’s no-go zone beyond the border, Hamas appealed for a permanent opening of its Rafah border crossing into Egypt and safeguarding of smuggling routes in and out of Sinai. In the end, Hamas fell short of all these objectives in the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire signed Nov. 21.
Nevertheless, security sources in Israel concede that Hamas scored several significant achievements.
Internally, Hamas reasserted absolute control over Salafist and other organizations vying for power in Gaza. Externally, visits by the Egyptian prime minister, the emir of Qatar and foreign ministers from Turkey, Iraq and other Islamic states bolstered international recognition of Hamas as the legitimate sovereign in Gaza.
While Israel may have gained diplomatic points for the relative restraint demonstrated in the surgical standoff campaign, Hamas has claimed success of its own, saying that it deterred Israel from a bloody ground war.
Moreover, Hamas showed it could quickly recover from the loss of top leaders. In the opening minutes of Pillar of Defense, an Israeli targeted-killing asset took out Ahmed Jabri, Hamas’ military chief of staff. But Jabri was immediately replaced with Marwan Issa, a special operations commando who has managed to elude Israel’s Shin Bet for nearly 20 years, and Hamas maintained effective command and control of the seven brigades deployed in four sectors throughout the seaside strip.
And despite Israel’s destruction of long-range Fajr-5 rockets and launching sites in the first hour of combat, Hamas demonstrated its ability to sustain the rate of rocket fire and to reach the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“In the eyes of Hamas, they succeeded in achieving a balance of power with Israel. The regime not only survived, but emerged strengthened as a result of Pillar of Defense,” Aviad said. “They consolidated power within Gaza, elevated their status in the West Bank and bolstered international legitimacy. … All this will help them to become better prepared for the next time around.”
Meanwhile, in the West Bank — just minutes away from the seat of government in Jerusalem and within mortar range of bedroom communities in central Israel and Ben-Gurion International Airport — Palestinian resentment over stalled peace talks threatens to engulf both sides in a new playing field of rage.
After nearly a decade of security cooperation and relative stability between the Palestine Authority and Israel, public pressure is mounting on PA President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to revert to old rules of the game, where Palestinian violence triggers harsh Israeli counterviolence, with each round a likely tripwire to a third intifada.
“The ground is percolating underneath our feet. Most have already lost faith in Abu Mazen’s ability to deliver meaningful political achievements under current conditions,” said Mazen Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Security analysts noted that in recent years, Abbas and Palestinian activists have adopted several pages from the Israeli playbook, including legal actions, artistic campaigns and diplomatic entreaties, the most significant of which was November’s recognition of the PA as a nonmember observer state to the United Nations.
But these nonviolent acts of resistance, said Qumsiyeh, have not translated into facts on the ground. “Settlement construction, nighttime arrests, harassments at checkpoints and violence by Jewish settlers continues to plague our people. At some point, the people will see no other choice but to embrace different methods.”
Eli Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, warned that the volatile status quo in the West Bank could erupt in a matter of months. He said Abbas would attempt to keep a lid on demonstrations until after U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned March visit to Israel and the PA, and until it becomes clear what direction the new government of Netanyahu chooses to take on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
“Until then, Abu Mazen will try to keep things on a low flame. But it may not be up to him,” Karmon said. “All it takes is one or two successful terror attacks or one or two mistakes from Israel’s side and the PA will lose control. Israel will respond with force … and Washington and the international community will be called in to contain the fallout.”