TEL AVIV — Despite mediation efforts by Egypt and other regional players, fighting resumed Friday on the fourth day of Israel’s Shield and Arrow Operation against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip after a 13-hour lull.
The resumption of rockets fired at Israel and Israeli counterstrikes in Gaza dashed hopes of a cease-fire between the sides. Egyptian-mediated contacts between the parties on an official cease-fire have reportedly hit a snag over Islamic Jihad’s demand that Israel pledges to stop its "targeted elimination" of the group’s leaders.
The current cycle of violence started May 2, when Islamic Jihad member Khader Adnan, on hunger strike for 87 days, died in an Israeli prison. Following his death, the organization fired 104 rockets at Israel. A week later, Israel targeted and killed three senior Islamic Jihad members. This was followed by heavy rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and retaliation on the part of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Islamic Jihad, seeking to avenge its dead and declare a winner, needs a victory photo with rockets penetrating the almost hermetic defenses provided by Israel’s Iron Dome system and Israeli casualties. That is the nature of asymmetric confrontations between a military, intelligence and technological power and a small, uncompromising terrorist organization.
Islamic Jihad got its wish on Thursday afternoon, after three days without inflicting Israeli casualties, when a rocket it launched from Gaza penetrated an apartment building in the Israeli town of Rehovot, killing one resident and wounding 13 others. Israel's military reported that the Iron Dome Tamir interceptor fired at the incoming rocket malfunctioned and missed. The Islamic Jihad achievement was a statistical glitch: Iron Dome boasts a 91%-95% interception rate.
This is Israel’s 15th military confrontation with the Gaza Strip since 2005, when Israeli forces withdrew from the enclave and Hamas rose to power. That averages almost one a year, with the frequency increasing in recent years.
Hamas sat out the previous two rounds, as its far smaller Islamic Jihad ally and Israel traded blows. No end appears in sight, and the parties will probably continue to shed each other's blood until further notice. This is a war without winners, an ongoing fight for honor, for artificial pictures of victory and especially for time. Israel aspires to increase the gap between rounds of violence; Hamas aspires to increase its influence, power and status among the Palestinian people; and Islamic Jihad aspires to carry out attacks.
Still, there was one winner this week: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The man who lost about one-third of his Likud party’s strength in the polls in recent weeks, and whose hold on power appeared tenuous, is once again in his element.
Netanyahu addressed the nation on primetime television this week, alongside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom he tried to fire in March, hailing the performance of the military, the intelligence provided by the Shin Bet security agency and the Intelligence Directorate, and the air force. "Mr. Security" is back and knows what needs to be done and how to market the fight against terrorism.
Indeed, the latest operation against Gaza flies in the face of deep concerns voiced in recent months over the damage wrought on the Israeli military and its deterrence capability by the government’s deeply controversial proposed judicial overhaul. The reserve pilots showed up for their missions and the intelligence and other forces outdid themselves.
A senior Israeli military source talked to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about Israel's military capabilities. "Israel is probably the only country in the world capable today of carrying out the opening move of such an operation, taking out the three most senior members of a terrorist organization at 2 a.m. in three different apartments in the heart of crowded Gaza, in just 10 seconds — an operation that combines precise intelligence with surgical execution and really rare capabilities.”
While expressing regret for the death of innocents, among them children, the military official said every effort had been made to avoid these casualties. A previous strike against the three was aborted last week when two children appeared suddenly in the crosshairs of the ammunition’s targeting mechanism, he said.
The military released video footage of that aborted strike in which the pilot is heard being ordered to “cease and desist” because of the children. “But our enemies must understand that they cannot hide behind women and children. Whoever launches hundreds and thousands of rockets at Israeli children over the years will pay the price," the source warned, echoing repeated warnings issued this week by Netanyahu.
A senior Netanyahu government source who spoke with Al-Monitor said that Thursday’s assassination of two additional Islamic Jihad leaders — head of the organization’s rocket operations Ali Hassan Ghali and his deputy, Mohammed Abu Daqa — was a “colossal achievement."
"They were located by intelligence, unable to hide from the IDF. This is a resounding message to anyone who believes that it is possible to harm Israel without paying the price," the source noted.
Nonetheless, Israel also has serious reasons for concern over this latest skirmish. Once again, a tiny terrorist organization operating within a narrow and densely populated strip of territory with funding from Iran sent thousands of Israeli residents along the border with Gaza fleeing from their homes and thousands of others into bomb shelters, instilling fear and disrupting all aspects of daily life in a major regional power and one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries.
Israel has no solution for the situation in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu sees Hamas as an asset, not a burden, allowing him to preserve the split between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and thus maintain the political stalemate and the status quo. But this also allows Hamas to advance toward its goals.
"Hamas is not deterred by Israel," a former senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "It profits from every round, holding the stick at both ends and cashing in on the spoils. While Israel strikes Islamic Jihad, Hamas strengthens its standing as the responsible adult and sovereign on the ground. It harms Israel through proxies in the West Bank, flirts with Iran and maintains good working relations with Egypt. At this rate, by the time Israel wakes up, it will discover that it has raised another Hezbollah on its southern fence, but then it will be too late."
Israel could console itself with the successful operational debut of its David's Sling anti-missile system, which intercepted a rocket launched by Islamic Jihad at Tel Aviv this week. David's Sling is designed to stop medium- and long-range missiles from countries such as Syria. It complements the Iron Dome system designed for short-range rockets and the Arrow system for long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its successful interception this week proves once again the superiority of Israeli technology in the arms race against the high-trajectory arsenals being built up around it.