The Israeli army carried out airstrikes Friday evening on targets in the Gaza Strip, announcing operation “Breaking Dawn” against the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad. Reports said head of the group’s northern command Taysir al-Jabari was killed in the aerial strikes. Two anti-missile cells were apparently also hit in the strikes. The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least seven people were killed. Israeli authorities did not confirm these reports.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation came after several days of tension on the Gaza border, over the arrest of in the West bank of a senior Islamic Jihad member.
In fact, at the start of the week, Israeli security forces appeared to have scored yet another victory over terrorism with the arrest of the Islamic Jihad’s West Bank commander Bassem Saadi. The Aug. 1 raid by Israeli commandos and Shin Bet agents in the Jenin refugee camp was complex, with Israeli forces coming under brutal fire that forced them to hole up with Saadi in his home until a rescue team arrived to extricate them unharmed.
Saadi’s arrest was intended to deal a severe blow to the terrorism that swept through Israel from late March to early May, much of it carried out by Palestinians from the Jenin area. In political terms, the successful raid appeared to signal yet another upbeat week in the fortunes of Yair Lapid, the caretaker neophyte prime minister struggling to position himself as a viable alternative to “Mr. Security,” former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the Nov. 1 elections.
However, as always in Israel and the Middle East, any victory can turn into a fiasco within a heartbeat, every ending is a new beginning and nothing ever turns out the way it was meant to. The footage of Saadi being dragged on the floor by Israeli troops accompanied by an attack dog generated a widespread storm, especially in the Gaza Strip, where Islamic Jihad is headquartered. More so, rumors that the movement’s West Bank commander had been killed in the raid spread quickly. Israel countered with photos showing the 62-year-old captive alive and well, but tensions only escalated, with the organization accusing Israel of “crossing a red line."
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Hours later, Israeli intelligence had already detected the deployment of Islamic Jihad teams along the Gaza border, toting anti-tank rockets and other weapons, in search of targets on the Israeli side. The head of the military’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, ordered the closing of all roads along the border vulnerable to rocket attack. Residents of the kibbutzim and other communities in the area were instructed to remain indoors until further notice, par for the course of the attack and counterattack script the two sides have been following for years.
As of this writing, four days after Saadi’s arrest, tens of thousands of Israelis remain holed up at home as drones scour the Gaza Strip to locate Islamic Jihad teams. Many roads remain closed, rail service has been suspended and some communities are completely cut off. All outdoor activities have been canceled.
The patience of area residence, periodically pummeled for some 17 years by rocket attacks and shelling from Gaza, has long since been exhausted. A small, marginal terrorist organization that the IDF could have allegedly vanquished in days given an order to do so, is once again paralyzing daily life along a wide swath of land in the region’s most powerful state and keeping its armed forces on high alert.
Lapid, initially basking in the seeming success of the Jenin operation, is under heavy fire that is taking a political toll. Netanyahu is a consummate expert at exploiting such occasions. Assuming that the public has forgotten the deadly violence with Gaza throughout much of his 12-year tenure, Netanyahu is now lashing out at Lapid in an attack orchestrated by local leaders in the south allied with his Likud party.
Islamic Jihad, also adept at leveraging such occasions for its needs, is being portrayed by the Israeli opposition as dictating Israel’s agenda. Egypt as well as the Hamas movement that rules Gaza initially tried to broker a compromise between the sides. Islamic Jihad presented Israel with a list of demands, which was immediately rejected.
How long will this dead end persist? Lapid, who was scheduled to take a short summer break at the end of this week, traveled instead to IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to consult with top commanders. Are we in for yet another short round of fighting with the Gaza Strip on the eve of crucial elections?
As fate would have it, Islamic Jihad’s Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhalah was in Tehran at this sensitive juncture, meeting Aug. 5 with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The Iran-supported group finds itself playing a role in this farce unique to Israel — a typical Middle Eastern series of coincidences disrupting the reasoning of the Israeli leadership and turning the balance of power on its head, not for the first time.
Netanyahu’s attempted comeback bid is doing well, with polls giving his coalition with the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox bloc of parties a slim majority of 61/62 Knesset seats; 61 is the magic number that could allow Netanyahu to implement his scheme to crush Israeli democracy. He faces a transitional government led by Lapid, who has never held a security-related post; Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief but relative political newcomer; and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, by far the most experienced of the three in terms of membership in government security Cabinets with a record as minister of finance, foreign affairs, strategic threats and infrastructure.
Liberman exceeded his weekly threat quota this week when he warned Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that if he attacks Israel’s gas drilling platform near the border with Lebanon, Israel would bomb Beirut and wipe out part of its Dahiyeh quarter where he is located. Nasrallah is a serious rival worthy of Israel’s threats, but a challenge to Israeli deterrence by Islamic Jihad in Gaza is mostly humiliating.
Security is an overriding concern of Israeli voters, which makes or breaks Israeli prime ministers. The current election campaign has been focused on economic issues, so far. Netanyahu, taking advantage of the recent rising cost of living and inflation to leverage his popularity, presented a plan this week, which he said would extricate Israel from its economic crisis. The latest security developments appear to have caught him by surprise, too.
Netanyahu was opposition leader, as he is now, the last time a security-related miscalculation brought down a prime minister. The prime minister was Ehud Olmert, who hastily embarked on a war with Lebanon in 2006, which ultimately brought down his government and fueled public mistrust of the IDF and Israeli leadership and paved the way for Netanyahu’s 2009 election.
Lapid appears to have learned the lesson and will not repeat Olmert’s mistake, but the enemy he faces is vastly different than Olmert’s. While Hezbollah is far stronger than Islamic Jihad, there is no telling how a round of Israeli air raids on Gaza, even if planned to last several days, would turn out. Would Nasrallah take advantage of the opportunity to launch an attack drone at the Karish gas drilling platform, following the three surveillance drones he sent last month that Israel shot down? Would Hamas join the fray? How will Palestinian groups in the West Bank and East Jerusalem react?
Lapid, cocooned in the IDF’s underground headquarters, found himself this week in a frustrating position. He has at his disposal the most experienced, effective and deadly air force in the region, a large fighting force, trained and equipped to the hilt, a strong and growing economy. He faces gangs besieged in the Gaza Strip, one of the poorest and most densely populated enclaves in the world, but his hands were seemingly tied.
That being said, Lapid has a proven record of decision-making. Some of them have been difficult, some hasty. Launching operation “Breaking Dawn” was surely not an easy decision for Lapid to make, neither security wise, nor on the political level. Development in the coming days will reveal whether or not he poorly gambled on his political future.