Israel Pulse

Hamas bites the hand that feeds it

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Article Summary
Israel is aware of the fact that any regime vacuum in the Gaza Strip will draw in more extreme forces, which is why it battles an impossible fight of trying to stop the rocket fire from Gaza while preserving Hamas rule.

For nearly a week, Israel — or most of it — has come under a heavy barrage. Along with other terrorist organizations, Hamas has been launching hundreds of rockets day in, day out. Tel Aviv is being bombarded, as are the center of the country, the Sharon Plain region and Jerusalem and the communities in its environs. Considered safe only a year or two ago, all these places now fall within the Hamas' range of fire. This organization's genetic makeup contains a religious-divine edict and total commitment to annihilating the Zionist state. Hamas has been stockpiling these weapons, which are either homemade or have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip mainly from Iran and Syria via underground tunnels, the sea, Sudan or any other possible route. Monitoring this information for years, Israel had nonetheless demonstrated restraint. Addicted to quiet, it was willing to pay a price that no other country in the world would — namely, a routinely nonstop, low-keyed trickle of rockets and mortar shells on its southern towns and communities in what is known as the "Gaza periphery." That was true as long as the fire was confined to that area.

Now that is no longer the case. The fire has spread throughout almost the entire country. In recent days, Hamas has been attempting to target Haifa in the north, barely succeeding to graze it. The lesson is clear: If you cannot defend the southern town of Sderot, it will not be before long when you are unable to defend Tel Aviv.

Since the outbreak of the current confrontation, Hamas has been trying to score an indelible operational achievement, which will allow it to return quietly to its burrows. This effort took place on a number of fronts. One of them was to mount a large hostage terrorist act through a tunnel the digging of which lasted for years. However, it was identified by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence. It blew up into pieces (on July 7) on top of its occupants. The tunnel was to facilitate the infiltration of terrorists into the Israeli home front. They planned to raid a community or a military base in a bid to kill as many people as possible, try kidnapping others and then disappear. This attempt was scuttled. The following day, two offensives were mounted against kibbutz Zikim, which is located just a few hundred meters north of the Gaza Strip. A five-member Hamas navy commando detail swam ashore and charged the coastal kibbutz. Aided by drones and infantrymen, an Israeli naval force killed all members of the detail. The following day a similar attempt was made, which was also foiled.

In tandem, the rocket fire continued in full force. Hamas has been trying hard to target Dimona, the southern city that has been identified for several decades with the most iconic symbol of Israel's regional supremacy: the nuclear reactor. All the rockets fired at the city were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which Israel developed in cooperation with the United States. Hamas also tried breaking a taboo by firing rockets at Jerusalem. In this case, too, all rockets were intercepted. The highlight of what Hamas had hoped to achieve was to directly hit Ben Gurion International Airport, which is only a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Many rockets were launched in its direction, but they all missed their mark and were intercepted over the Dan metropolitan area. On July 11, Hamas fully acknowledged that it had tried — and that it would continue to try — targeting the airport. The organization knows that a successful attack would become major headlines in world media, thus dealing a serious blow to Israel's economy, tourist industry and freedom of movement. At this stage, the Iron Dome system has the upper hand. The possibility of the infliction of damage to Ben Gurion International Airport plays a pivotal role in the considerations of the Israeli Cabinet whether to order a ground operation in Gaza so as to stop the rockets or whether to continue to hold back. The organization has also been firing at Tel Aviv for four consecutive days, but all the rockets have been intercepted above this trendy, carefree and liberal Israeli city.

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All the while, Hamas is being dealt severe blows by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). More than 1,100 bombing sorties have been carried out to date, as a result of which some 100 Palestinians have been killed. Used as command posts and munitions depots, the homes of dozens of terrorists were destroyed from the air. Hundreds of tons of explosives were dropped on targets throughout the city. The IDF operates within the limits of international law. Every sortie and every target are approved ahead of time by a team of specialists from the office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) that is familiar with international law inside out. And that's the reason why there has been talk in Israel in recent days about an intelligence debacle.

In contrast to previous conflicts, this time around Israel is unable to seriously strike at the long-range rocket arsenal that Hamas has stockpiled. The Second Lebanon War in 2006 began with an accurate and deadly airstrike against all of Hezbollah's long-range rocket stockpiles, which were concealed inside private residences across southern Lebanon. On that first night, most of them were destroyed while inflicting only minimal damage to human lives. Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 started with a similar move. This time around, Operation Protective Edge was not initiated by Israel; quite the contrary. Israel was dragged into it after the kidnapping and killing of three teenagers in Hebron and the escalation in its aftermath, including an increase in the number of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Naturally, a similar gambit was not in the pipeline.

Yet, there is another difference: This time, as senior IDF intelligence officials note, Hamas concealed the rockets in places that are hard to target from the air. These rockets can be found in mosques and multistory buildings in especially heavily populated areas. Knowing that striking the rockets in these locations could lead to the loss of many civilians, Hamas is waiting for this photo opportunity. In fact, it's praying for one, instructing Gaza residents not to evacuate their homes despite Israeli warnings before destroying them. Hamas needs such a photo of civilians buried alive under the rubble of their homes to arouse public opinion and turn the tables upside down to renew its legitimacy and restore its standing in the Arab public opinion.

Hamas has a hard time accomplishing these objectives, the IDF contends. First, the world is fed up with gruesome photos. The events in Syria and Iraq have somewhat blunted its senses. When thousands, including women and children, are being massacred, another photo of a demolished house in Gaza will not make much of a difference. And there's something else: The international community has lost its naivete in the past year. The jihadists leaving the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Germany to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) in Syria and then returning home have helped the Europeans to understand the threat of radical Islam and the futility of trying to engage in a dialogue with these forces, whose monstrosity they now understand.

In the first few days, Hamas tried disseminating harrowing photos from Syria as if they had been taken in recent days in Gaza. Not everybody across the Web fell for this. Israel is now equipped with the right tools as well as with "talk-back responders" who can put up a good fight and provide the real facts.

On July 10, the Israeli Cabinet convened for seven hours. The topic at hand was what everyone has been talking about, namely whether Israel will realize that it has no choice and will mount a ground military operation in Gaza. Such an operation could exact a heavy price not only from the Palestinians but also from the Israelis. At times of war, we are not authorized to report from the meetings of the Cabinet. What is clear, however, is that there are disagreements. As chairman of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu constantly preached for a ground incursion into Gaza to bring down Hamas rule. Now that he serves as prime minister, he realizes that life is more complex. He knows that one day we might all miss Hamas, the way we now miss Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and — having been acquainted with IS — also Osama bin Laden. Israel has already killed many of Hamas' military and political leaders, yet each time a more radical figure replaced them.

Paradoxically enough, Israel has no interest today in toppling Hamas. It knows that the vacuum that will be created will turn into a magnet for a more radical organization. And that's why, as a high-ranking Israeli diplomatic official told me this week, Israel pounds Hamas with one hand while helping it with the other. It continues to supply electricity, water, vital products, food, cash and medicine to Gaza. This is a totally insane situation, whereby a statelike entity fires hundreds of rockets daily at its neighbor and at the same time continues to suck that neighbor's nipples for everything it needs for its sustenance. This kind of a situation is possible only here, in our neighborhood, IDF officials opine.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for more than 100 years, but its current format began in 1947, when the United Nations voted with a great majority for the partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and its division between Jews and Arabs. Back in the day, the Jewish population was 600,000 strong. Almost defenseless with very few weapons and ammunition, it was pitted against some 1.3 million well-equipped and armed Arabs. Standing behind Israel back in those days were the 6 million Jews who had just been murdered in the Holocaust. Standing behind the Arabs were all the Arab states and their regular armies. The Jews said "yes" to the partition plan whereas the Arabs said "no." On the day after the proclamation of Israel's independence, five Arab states invaded it, and that was on top of the local gangs that had long been fighting the Jews.

Against all odds, the young Israel prevailed during its war for independence. So what has happened since? Despite seven wars, Israel continued to develop by leaps and bounds. Today, it's one of the most developed economies in the world. Its gross domestic product is just shy of the European figures. The standard of living is sky-high. It enjoys modern, high-quality medicine that is sought after the world over. Its high-tech industry blazes new paths and is considered an immense and leading growth engine by any standard. Having progressive agriculture, unique developments are being introduced. Israel is home to the Weizmann Institute, one of the most reputable scientific institutions in the world as well as to the Technion (Israel Technology Institute), with its sterling reputation within academic circles all over the world. Israel enjoys one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, demonstrating particularly low birth mortality. Tel Aviv has emerged as one of the trendiest, chic and modern cities in the world, a beloved magnet for the GLBT community. Israel is the only country in the world that has developed a system that intercepts low-trajectory rockets. Launching satellites into space, it is at the cutting edge of developing unmanned aerial vehicles.

Across the border — in Gaza, for example — hate reigns supreme. During those dozens of years, the Palestinians have nurtured their victimhood, fueling hate and incitement. They have repeatedly tried to harm Israel and bring about its destruction through wars, terrorism and propaganda.

As I am writing this, reports keep flooding my cell phone. Since this morning, dozens of rockets have been fired at Israel. A major fire broke out at a gas station. A house in the south took a direct hit, but the family, having gone into the safe room, was spared. Four rockets were intercepted over Tel Aviv. Air-raid sirens wail throughout the country, yet the Israeli public accepts the situation with relative equanimity. These are ordinary people who, half-smilingly, have come to terms with this existence. They know this is not a battle between peoples or between armies. What we have here is a battle between civilizations. On the one hand, we have a nation that sanctifies life. On the other, we have a population with a segment that sanctifies death. When we prevail — and that has happened quite a few times since 1948 — they go back home to plan their next assault. If they ever win, even once — perish the thought — they will simply slaughter us. This is the whole philosophy in a nutshell and that is the reason that compels us to always and forever win.

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Found in: tel aviv, rockets, palestine, israel defense forces, israel, hamas, gaza strip, 1948

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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