Clashes Between Israel, Hamas Marked By Reluctance to Escalate

Article Summary
Israel and Hamas have waged a strange battle over the last few months: attacking, but careful not to ''overdo" it. Ofer Shelah explains that both sides are balancing retaliation with a mutual unwillingness to cause a major escalation — and that the IDF’s current approach to warfare may not be suited to the situations evolving on its borders.

One of the concepts that prevailed in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) before the Second Lebanon War — a concept now out of favor in what is called the "rehabilitation of the Israeli army" — is "conceptualization." This term was used by the IDF to describe the process by which a commander in the fog of a battlefield consolidates his concept of the reality that he faces. At one time, it was simple: the enemy was in uniform and its objective was to conquer our territory and overpower us. Our objective was to do the same to the other side. In the last 20 years, nothing is simple — not knowing when it is "permissible" to talk about conceptualization.

What is currently taking place on the southern front is an excellent example of this fog. This week I asked high-placed military men why Hamas — which has carefully avoided assuming responsibility for hostile actions against Israel for the past year (ever since the shooting of the missile on the Israeli children’s bus) — why this time they have chosen to position themselves so conspicuously on the forefront of the present escalation. I received several reasonable answers that I will detail below, although the truth is that in the south, we uncover the enemy’s logic, even his identity, mainly from a retrospective analysis. Our operative intelligence abilities are still good, as we saw in the elimination of a Palestinian on Wednesday (June 20) who was pinpointed by the GSS as one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on the Egyptian border last week. But in the wider view — of who takes action, why he acts, when and why will he take action next time — the situation is a lot more murky and unclear.

This is the new security sphere in which we live now, a world that will grow even more complicated in the future. Israel has coped for 40 years with a no-man's-land on its Lebanese border. There Israel wrestles with the local landlords (the PLO, Hezbollah) on territory that is ostensibly a sovereign nation, but in practice is not under anyone’s sovereignty. The Egyptian border, on the other hand, is a peaceful one with a country that meticulously maintains their peace agreement with us, but whose ability to impose order on the Sinai Peninsula is much weakened, thus creating a challenge that is much more problematic.

The IDF deals with all these problems with the tools, values and thinking-processes of an army whose conceptualizations are in black-and-white, and centers around the use of physical power. In the hours after the terrorist attack, the IDF dispatched tanks to the area. The photos of the tanks made their way into the media in order to transmit images of power and deterrence, necessary in and of themselves. It was clear that there was no visible target at which the tanks could shoot, and it was also unclear whether enemies could be shot, even if they were visible. The tank is the tool at our disposal; the big question is, how to make it relevant to the new circumstances we face, besides placing its threatening photo on the Internet (the correct thing to do, in any event).

Sovereign responsibility in Gaza

In last year’s round of violence, the head of Hamas’ military arm, Ahmed Ja'abri, announced that his forces would lead the fighting. In fact, Hamas stood on the side while the Islamic Jihad (under Iran’s funding and inspiration) and Popular Resistance Committees, fought against the IDF. This time Hamas jumped to the front of the line, for several unconcealed reasons — spurred by the IDF’s strike on an important Hamas operative which was, in turn, Israel’s reprisal for the terrorist attack at the beginning of the week.

This policy is not new: Israel decided some time ago that it views Hamas as the ruler in charge of its territory, and will retaliate against Hamas’ people even when it is clear that they were not the ones to shoot into ours. This is a lesson learned from what happened in the Second Lebanon War: Israel cannot afford to let the entity that rules the other side to evade liability, whether Israel formally acknowledges its regime or not. On the other hand, Israel takes into consideration the price it will pay for being pulled into Hamas’ circle of violence, when Hamas has much greater power in its hands than the Jihad or other ephemeral organizations.

Nevertheless, we sometimes get the impression that Israel wants Hamas to intervene. Israel’s Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2008, which was marketed as a meteoric military success, caused mixed feelings among Israel’s military elite. Although it lasted nearly three weeks and was viewed within Israel almost as a war, the operation did not substantively change the situation in Israel’s south — it did not even create a long-term lull like the relative quiet in the north. Perhaps such an improvement could only be achieved by the conquest of Gaza — something that no one really wanted. But the overblown rhetoric used by the military ringleaders (just as in the Second Lebanon War) and the dragged-out warfare (way beyond the utility threshold) created a public demand for military achievement that the situation on the ground simply cannot provide.

Every round of confrontation with Hamas, who clearly is not interested in a Cast Lead 2 (or even a much smaller military campaign), allows Israel a type of tiny redressing of the situation. The Iron Dome system, while not hermetic, improves the odds of completing the cycle with minimal human harm on our side, while causing harm to the other side more efficiently. At the conclusion of these rounds there is the feeling that the IDF has not made tactical achievements, because no arrangements are made after the violence — since no arrangements can be made. But in a country that regards its army’s capabilities with awesome divine reverence and disproportionally pressures that military when it appears that it is not defeating its enemies in every confrontation, no matter how tiny — these small victories seem essential.

Therefore, the IDF took out the Hamas high-level operative, and this time the organization running Gaza rushed into the fray. The reasons appear to be intricate. There are reports from Gaza claiming that Hamas is under pressure: life in the Gaza Strip has not become any easier in the five years under Hamas control. The Islamic Jihad, Popular Resistance Committees and what is known in our parts by such bombastic names as “World Jihad” all try to portray Hamas as a bloated organization that has become ‘soft’ on Israel, abandoned resistance and in fact tries to live alongside Israel more than it tries to kill its people. Thus Hamas launched the current round of violence in an attempt to disarm these criticisms a bit.

Both sides conduct the fighting like porcupines: with great caution of the other’s quills. Each side tells itself that the other side only wants to go through the motions with as little damages as possible, and neither side thinks they can gain real achievements. Each one knows that a chance rocket or missile landing in the wrong place can light a very large conflagration that no one wants. This is a “promotional battle” in which the ones who direct the fighting try to satisfy their public’s desires even though they don’t really believe they can actually win. But the war-leaders know that their publics will not agree to stop the fighting and will demand escalation if a rocket falls on a kindergarten.

The media receives calming messages. The statements communicated to Egypt — a mediator now involved in its own problems that truly has no time for us — are “come, let’s find a way to finish this.” Only meanwhile, the south is under fire and the long-suffering Israeli residents don’t understand how all the IDF fire is not capable of granting them the basic right to live in the peace and quiet that it taken for granted north of Ashdod. And from their point of view, they are justified.

Syrians on the fences                                                                          

The Gaza Strip is the more understandable part of the story. South of the Strip extends a long inland border that will probably be a source of great challenges to the IDF. The border fence, once it’s completed, will be an efficient obstacle for illegal immigrants and smugglers. But on its own a simple fence won't be enough  to stop determined and well-equipped terror cells, and certainly not to prevent shooting incidents from Egyptian territory to Israel.

On the other side of the Gaza Strip is a no-man’s-land in which Israel is hampered in use of traditional intelligence methods, partly due to the nature of its residents but mainly because of its landlord, Egypt. Operations that are possible in Lebanon may not be possible in Egypt, and certainly not blatant infiltrations into territory under Egyptian sovereignty. The area is sparsely populated by Bedouin tribes, among whom it is especially difficult to collect intelligence.

The IDF has recently noted that some of the Sinai Bedouins have undergone a process of religious radicalization. But the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in southern Israel — if we are to believe the film that was disseminated — came from Egypt proper (not the Sinai Peninsula) and from Saudi Arabia and received help from local agents whose motivation might have been money, not ideology. Money is something very concrete in a population that earns its livelihood dishonourably by the smuggling of people and of merchandise. The fence that is expected to significantly cut down the number of infiltrators to Israel will also cut down this source of income. It is likely that even after the completion of the fence, IDF forces will find themselves in an unremitting struggle against Bedouin attempts to breach the new obstacle.

This is a struggle in which traditional military might — whether in the guise of tanks or sophisticated technological tools — has little relevance. These traditional tools have many limitations, and a mistake can have severe political consequences. Instead, it may be far more efficacious to adopt ostensibly old-fashioned methods such as the use of field intelligence of vigilant forces on the ground over the technological prowess that serves Israel so well in other zones.

The Israeli defense system points to the changes in the Arab world, including the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as proof of the need to maintain its traditional warfare deployment because conventional warfare may again become a reality. But it seems more likely that the scenario will be the spread of the current Egyptian-border model to other borders. The demonstration on last year’s Nakba Day, which turned into an onslaught on the Syrian border fence, was the first hint of things to come. In this case also the layout on the ground preparing for what was to come and field intelligence proved to be more significant than the analysis ahead — prepared, one should hope, with more sophisticated tools. If post-Assad-Syria will indeed, as expected by many, transform into a torn and barely functioning state, some of the pressure might erupt via its border with Israel — our most quiet border since 1975.

Ultra-Orthodox on the borders

It may surprise you to consider that all these developments may be connected to our hottest internal-security topic, one that will make headlines soon: the recommendations of the Plesner Committee to draft eligible ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF, intended to replace the Tal Law. If the IDF will have to supply significantly more soldiers for garrison forces that will guard long borders from infiltrators, terrorists and enemies of both types, then its manpower needs will change accordingly.

Once I asked Eliezer Stern, previous head of the IDF’s Manpower Branch, what the IDF would do if the military exemptions currently granted to the ultra-Orthodox were abolished all at once, and large numbers of the ultra-Orthodox were drafted. Half-heartedly, he said, “I would set up security battalions to guard the border, thus cut down on the use of the reserves.” He did not really believe that such a thing  would come to pass, and was well aware of the problems it would pose to day-to-day functioning of the army.

It is altogether likely that IDF will actually need more local-security soldiers in the coming years. The foundation of the IDF’s current warfare approach — technological superiority, mobile forces and air power — may not be suited to the situations evolving on the borders. Thus, the army that is still coping with the results of changing threats and the technological revolution must re-conceptualize its world. The civilian system enveloping the army must also re-formulate the world in which it lives, its demands from the army and what it needs to provide to the army.

This is a big task; it requires planning, coordination of expectations between the political and military echelons, and meticulous execution of decisions. Whoever takes a close look at the last two recent State Comptroller reports may have doubts about the successful execution of this process. The Comptroller has told us about explicit decisions that are not carried out, about the nature and role of the National Security Headquarters, about the malfunctioning of the National Emergency Authority — a clear lesson of the Second Lebanon War. One must be very optimistic to believe that the new reality on the border will bring about the necessary changes.

Found in: pa, jihad, israel, hamas, egypt