Through a quick review of the days preceding the assassination of Zuhair al-Qaisi, the secretary-general of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), and his companion, liberated prisoner Mahmoud Al-Hannani, and in view of Israeli statements before the bombing, it is clear that Israel had three reasons to step up security measures on its Southern border. The first reason was that Israel had been preparing for the strike against Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed the second reason, while Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz shed light on the third.
During the two days preceding al-Qaisi’s assassination, Israel had been provoking Hamas, accusing it of threatening its security and stability. The army circulated an intelligence report stating that the movement was consolidating its military capabilities by acquiring more advanced weapons. The report added that in 2011, Hamas smuggled in seven times as many weapons as it did in 2010. Its missiles supply has increased by 40%, while its stock of artillery shells has gone up by 25%.
The Israeli army began training for underground attacks, as it claimed that the Palestinian movement had an underground military complex comprising dozen of “combat tunnels” linked to houses throughout the Gaza Strip. The army claims that some of these tunnels were designed to carry out abduction operations while others were conceived to transfer and smuggle weapons to the south [into Egypt]. Israel raised the level of provocations by declaring that the movement was forming armed cells operating under different names, and that it was planning to carry out consequential operations against Israel via the Sinai. According to the army, these cells were also planning to abduct Israeli soldiers.
Israel did not take long to begin boasting once again about its “deterrence and defense” capabilities, and it openly acknowledged that it had escalated the violence by assassinating al-Qaisi. For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated his government’s weekly session, which was held during the bombing of Gaza, by gloating about the assassination of al-Qaisi. He saw the 18 dead Palestinians as mere numbers. He did not even bother to mention them in his speech, apologize, or justify the killing of those innocent Palestinian children who fell victims to the assault on Gaza.
Ehud Barak, on the other hand, revealed another motive behind the violence. It relates to Israel’s antimissile system, which is known as the Iron Dome. Barak confirmed what the Israeli media had already been publishing, which was that the latest strike on Gaza was a demonstration of the Iron Dome defense system and its “ability and strength to protect the Israeli citizens.”
“In the final round of violence, the Iron Dome missiles...demonstrated a 95% rate of effectiveness,” said Ehud Barak. Barak’s show of strength was mainly directed towards his domestic audience. Not only was it intended to reassure citizens that the army is able to ensure Israel’s security, but also an attempt to gain the Israeli Finance Minister support for increasing the military budget.
However, the ministry of defense did not mention that Barak’s Iron Dome system muscle-flexing cost Israel at least USD $4 million. The system fired 41 missiles which cost $100,000 each. For Barak, this was a price that the government had to pay, so that he could further emphasize the need to increase the military budget. Furthermore, not only did Barak declare that a fourth missile-defense system would be built over the next month, but he also demanded that the government further consolidate his army’s capacities to protect Israeli citizens. He also announced that he would hold discussions about the establishment of a new system called the “Magic Wand,” which is designed to intercept long-range missiles. This defense system is seen as a “national emergency,” which necessitates the approval of the concerned parties, whether in the government or the industry.
This is not to mention that the Israeli army is marketing this new system to several friendly countries. Evidently, the best way to market a new military product is to demonstrate its effectiveness on the battleground. In recent military operations, the Magic Wand system demonstrated a rate of effectiveness raging between 55% and 70%; this was not enough and there was thus an urgent need to improve its performance. This is what was achieved in the recent escalation -- the system’s effectiveness reached 90%, according to Barak.
The third reason behind the recent aggression on Gaza was revealed by Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who said that he wanted to know what kinds of weapons the Palestinian factions were holding, and if they had been supplied with missiles more sophisticated than those they had previously employed. Gantz concluded that the Grad missiles which were once owned by Hamas alone are now in the possession of other factions, who have taken over the task of firing rockets. These factions include the Salah al-Din Brigades and the Al-Quds Brigades. Furthermore, it has been revealed that Katyusha rockets -- which can reach Tel Aviv -- were among those fired.
On the objectives of the Israeli aggression against Gaza, Alex Fishman -- a journalist known for his close relations with the security and military leaderships -- wrote an op-ed saying that “the current escalation in the Gaza region was planned in advance.” He said that “the IDF in fact set up an ‘ambush’” for Hamas, and that “the Air Force deployed the three Iron Dome batteries in advance and filled the skies over the Gaza Strip with a reinforced presence. The results are commensurate with these preparations.” Fishman explicitly said, "Israel is presenting Hamas’ government with a leadership dilemma: In an era where Hamas wishes to present itself to the world as a pragmatic political party, will it have the power and desire to restrain the Islamic Jihadist fire that threatens its own hegemony in the Strip? Concurrently, this round of fighting is a blatant Israeli signal: There is no immunity, even in Gaza, for Palestinians who undertake terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula.”
Dead Men Walking
Most ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet have stated the overthrow of Hamas is one of their goals. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman clearly stated that he would not approve a limited invasion of the Gaza Strip, and that he would not support the invasion unless the government clearly stated that the goal of such an invasion would be the overthrow of Hamas. Liberman added that “bringing down Hamas was a goal agreed upon when we formed the current coalition government. It was one of the key terms and as part of the main outline of the government’s policy.”
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon was even less subtle when he immediately threatened to assassinate more Palestinian leaders in Gaza. He said: “For us, today those leaders are dead men walking. No one in the Gaza Strip is immune.” Ya'alon threw the ball past Hamas’ court, to Egypt, saying: “Whether there is escalation or calm depends on the Palestinians. As for the theory held by some positing that the post-revolutionary situation in Egypt has tied Israel’s hands, this is incorrect. What happened in the Gaza Strip is the biggest proof.”
He continued: “In previous rounds of escalation, Egypt has played the role of mediator. We do not conduct negotiations with Hamas, which is responsible for what is happening in the Gaza Strip. We want to pass on a very clear message. If you are quiet, we will be quiet. If you shoot, or plot attacks, we will hit you.” He arrogantly added: “We do not mind if the current round of escalation affects the peace agreement with Egypt.”
“All threats claiming that Egypt’s internal situation prevents Israel from doing what is necessary in response to events in the Gaza Strip have once again been proven wrong,” he added.
These are the voices from inside the Israeli government. These statements were made in spite of warnings against them from several other critical Israeli voices. By admitting that they planned this initiative meant to escalate tensions, the Israeli government has sparked an internal debate about the efficacy of such a move. Some who deplore the Israeli aggression against Gaza as well as its continued assassinations, have asserted that this kind of move will not affect the ability or the motives of Palestinian organizations like Hamas. Critics supported their position with data dating back to Operation Cast Lead (the war of aggression against the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009), claiming that the Palestinians’ response to these actions would only be to launch additional -- potentially more advanced -- missiles. But this debate has only just begun, and it may end before it is exacerbated further. In the meantime, it has been limited to the press -- we have so far not heard of a single Israeli political leader who opposed the aggression on Gaza.