The starting point for all sound intelligence analysis of a particular action is to identify who gains from it and what it is that they gain.
The “Guardian of the Walls” war started at a high level of intensity, and therefore it will probably be shorter than wars in the past. At the end of the war’s first week, Hamas used its advantage of surprise to the fullest while Israel made a series of errors, but from now on Israel’s great military advantage is expected to set the tone unless the war spreads to additional fronts.
In any case the unacceptable toll of the bloodletting between Israel and Hamas will, at some point, reach an end. However, this Arab-Jewish violence is, really, to apply an overused and misused expression, an existential challenge to Israel. Nobody expected such an explosive reaction from Israel’s Arab citizens to the events in Jerusalem and Gaza.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
Israel is currently enmeshed in a multi-front campaign that it never experienced previously: a military confrontation with Hamas in Gaza; riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities and towns throughout Israel; and tensions in Jerusalem, including on the Temple Mount. Hamas chose to ride the wave of disturbances that erupted in Jerusalem -on the Temple Mount /al-Aqsa compound, at Damascus Gate, and in Sheikh Jarrah. The organization presented Israel with an ultimatum and carried out its threat when Israel did not meet its demands, launching rockets at Jerusalem and barrages deep within the Israeli interior, and in addition it encouraged the incitement that inflamed the Arab street in Israel with a view to undermining coexistence in the country. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) do not lag behind and continued eliminating the command of the military wing of Hamas with precise strikes, repeatedly inflicting losses among civilians.
In the Begining…
In the middle of January 2009, the IDF was a step away from toppling Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Operation “Cast Lead” was underway. The Gaza Strip, only 45km long and an average of 5km wide, had been broken up into three parts. The 162nd Division operated in the central area with little resistance. The 401st armored brigade and the Givaati brigade were only 4km from the heart of Gaza City. The paratroopers were a little bit north of them. The road to the coast was open. And then, under a unilateral ceasefire, the IDF was ordered to withdraw.
“Two years after it took over the Gaza Strip, Hamas was still like a mouse,” has said a senior defense source who was deeply involved in the fighting at that time. “We could have removed Hamas without paying a heavy price, but Gabi Ashkenazi (then IDF Chief of Staff) didn’t want to do it, and Yoav Gallant (then Gaza Division Commander) pretended that he didn’t want to do it, because Gabi didn’t want to do it. The political echelon didn’t try to argue with the military. The recommendation not to occupy all of Gaza suited it.”
That was how the matters looked from the perspective of IDF figures. Their perspective was backed up by the foreign minister during Operation “Cast Lead”, Tzipi Livni, who claimed that then Defense Minister Ehud Barak was the one who strove to stop the operation unilaterally, in coordination with Egypt, behind her back and behind the back of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
One way or another, as years passed, Israel’s unclear policy toward Hamas in 2009 became an unequivocal, although unofficial, Israeli strategy of strengthening the organization at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The misleading calm in Gaza could have continued, and suitcases of dollars from Qatar would still be arriving in Gaza, if not for a series of errors that almost “forced” Hamas to take advantage of a golden opportunity vis-à-vis Israel.
Perhaps due to the conception that Hamas is addicted to dollars, Israel did not see the organization was preparing for the strategic achievement of being seen by Palestinian society as leading the struggle against Israel, and turning the “Jerusalem issue” into a confrontation between the entire Muslim world and Israel. In the entire Muslim world, the firing of rockets at Israel is perceived as “defense of the al-Aqsa mosque”, and even the UAE hosted a pan-Arab virtual conference on the topic of “defense of al-Aqsa and the Palestinian rights”.
“Guardian of the Walls”: How it all started…
The escalation was triggered by the decision of the Israeli court to evict Arab families from their homes in the Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah quarter of East Jerusalem, where they have been living for more than half a century. The decision was made just in time, on the eve of “Al-Quds Day”, when the Arabs remember the loss of Jerusalem, in the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
One way or another, following the tactical surprise that enabled Hamas to start from the most optimal position, the three first days of fighting were seen as a success for Hamas, with the organization in near euphoria due to the rioting in mixed cities in Israel, pan-Muslim support, the closing of Ben Gurion Airport -for the first time in history because of a military threat- and the image of the oil storage tank burning at the power station in Ashkelon. All of those were more than could have been expected in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas tried to challenge the Iron Dome system using barrages of more than 100 missiles, but the interception rate remained at 85% or higher, as in “usual” barrages -in great part due to improvements to Iron Dome in recent years.
On the Israeli side, there were a number of tactical achievements, such as the killing of a squad of terrorists within tunnels that were attacked, the elimination of mid-to-high level commanders, and the intelligence that led to the strike against the Hamas “general staff”.
The starting point for all sound intelligence analysis of a particular action is to identify who gains from it and what it is that they gain. As the new tit-for-tat conflict between Israel and Palestine continues to escalate, such analysis reveals the following: overall Palestine will gain nothing except sympathy from already sympathetic supporters, Israel will gain nothing although it may bolster the flagging domestic support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but those countries that want to destroy the nascent U.S.-Israeli-led “relationship normalisation” strategy, emmanating from last year’s “Abraham Accord” stand to gain precisely what they want.
IRAN: On top of the list of beneficiaries…
Top of this list of beneficiaries is obviously Iran, which has the motive, means, and opportunity to stoke the ever-simmering conflict between Palestine and Israel to such a point that Arab states, that have long seen the Palestine conflict as a reason not to join the new U.S.-Israeli-led initiative -most notably, Saudi Arabia and its King Salman- have been vindicated.
For Iran, the potential danger that this new U.S.-Israel power axis posed is huge. Partly this is a result of increased security threats -via a massively expanded Israeli-led intelligence operation- coming from the UAE in its south and south-western provinces, and partly this is due to the likelihood that when the current ruler leader of its deadliest regional enemy, Saudi Arabia dies -and King Salman is in very poor health- his successor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), may join the relationship normalisation grouping.
That Iran should seek to leverage this perennial and deep-seated issue of Palestine at this point is entirely unsurprising, as Iran has nothing to lose and everything to gain if it plays the situation correctly. On the one hand, the longer the current violence between Palestine and Israel continues, and even better for Iran if Israel launches a ground invasion, the less likely it is that any other Arab state will join the U.S.-led relationship normalisation deal strategy in the region, including Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, given that the key power in Palestine, Hamas, is extremely closely tied to Iran -along with Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon- Iran might eventually be called upon through diplomatic back-channels to broker some sort of peace with Palestine. In such an event, Iran would undoubtedly seek a dropping of Washington’s hardline clauses for the new draft of the nuclear deal that it is currently on-and-off negotiating with the U.S.
Although the relationship between Iran and Hamas had cooled off in around 2012, when the military-political grouping that essentially runs Palestine decided to back the Syrian opposition against ruling President Bashar al-Assad -contrary to Iran’s wishes- financial necessity on Hamas’s part warmed relations back up again around three years ago. In 2018, according to then-Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that most of the US$260 million that Hamas invested in 2017 in making tunnels and weapons came from Tehran.
Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Iran had agreed to provide US$30 million per month to Hamas in return for information on Israel’s missile capabilities and its missile locations, following a meeting two weeks ago between nine senior members of Hamas’s militant wing and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in Tehran. Even more recently, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami, warned that Israel was vulnerable to one large tactical operation because the country is so small and highlighted the recent firing of an S-200 missile from Syria, as an example of how effective a sustained bombardment by short-range missiles might be.
The “Tasnim Report”: Assessing Israel’s Air Defense…
“Tasnim News” reported the Hamas-Khamenei meeting in Iran. What is important here is that the Iranian media published a unique look at Israel’s air defense systems, asserting that Israel is showing new vulnerabilities. Iran’s “Tasnim” argued that the Iron Dome system is vulnerable to large barrages of rocket fire. Hamas has conducted unprecedented large volume of rocket fire, up to 135 rockets in five minutes, during this campaign while Hezbollah is watching. Reports indicate Hezbollah could fire 2,000 rockets a day at Israel in a future war.
The Tasnim report included detailed information about Iron Dome and other Israeli defenses. For instance it says that the “Zionist Army are organized in such a way that the Iron Dome systems, which are organized in the form of 137th and 947th Battalions, are responsible for dealing with low-altitude targets. After that, the 138th and 139th Battalions of the Patriot systems and the 66th Battalion of the David’s Sling systems are tasked with engaging medium-altitude targets, and the 136th Battalion Megan Battalion, consisting of Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems, has been deployed to counter high-altitude threats and ballistic missiles.”
The report then notes that “…on the other hand, the only Israeli defense system that has been active in recent years is the Iron Dome system, and other defense systems of the regime army, except for a few cases, have not yet entered into a serious conflict, and therefore the efficiency of their operation is questionable.” Tasnim continues saying that the Iron Dome system also has several weaknesses. “First, the number of available systems is not able to cover all the occupied territories, and therefore in the event of a multi-front war, this system will not be able to respond to rocket and missile attacks, and the air defense of the Israeli low altitude will be extremely vulnerable.” In addition the report says that “…on the other hand, one of the weaknesses of this system is its inability to deal with large volumes of fire. This is an issue that the resistance groups have also realized and this is one of the reasons why these groups fired rockets at high volumes.”
Tasnim says that Hamas, likely with Iranian advice, has increased the speed of their rockets, making them harder to intercept. It has also increased accuracy and volume of fire. “This shows that the resistance groups have gradually increased the quality of their rockets and missiles by carefully studying the strengths and weaknesses of the Zionist Army Air Defense Organization and especially its Iron Dome system, and so far they have been able to balance the acceptable power with the Zionist regime. If this continues, it will lead the resistance groups to acquire much more advanced weapons than today and to inflict heavier blows on the Zionist regime.”
The Report indicates a clear blueprint for how Hamas conducted this war. Hamas has moved from the 130-rocket barrage specifically targeting Ashkelon to say that it targeted airports and used kamikaze drones, based on an Iranian export design for the Houthis, and that it has other advanced weapons. It also has a new 250km range missile.
Iran had predicted this war between May 6 and 8. Hamas launched the war on May 10 on Jerusalem Day. This is clearly a message. Iran had indicated that Israel could be defeated in “Quds Day” speeches on May 7 and 8. Hamas moved forward on May 10 with the strike aimed at Jerusalem as a symbol of “defending Al-Aqsa.”
What degree of “advise and assist” is Iran giving Hamas? Is Iran working “by, with and through” Hamas to defeat Israel or merely to test Israel’s defenses as a test run for Hezbollah, that has sought PGMs or precision guided munitions to strike at Israel as well. Israel conducted thousands of airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria to interdict the flow of weapons to Hezbollah over the last ten years. However in the last days there has been rocket fire from Lebanon and Syria. This may be symbolic, but it also shows that Iran’s multi-front war approach is increasing. Iran says this openly. “Therefore in the event of a multi-front war, this system (Iron Dome) will not be able to respond to rocket and missile attacks.” This is Iran’s blueprint. Iran has said it openly. Hamas has listened…
After the rockets the economic blows…
Iran fracturing the relationship between the U.S., Israel and those countries that have already signed up to the normalisation deals -notably the UAE and Bahrain is also a possibility as evidenced last week. Up until just two weeks ago, for example, the UAE’s key sovereign wealth vehicle “Mubadala” was intent on formally ratifying an in-principle agreement to buy from Israel’s Delek Drilling its 22% stake in the Tamar natural gas field operated by U.S. oil and gas giant, Chevron. Given the size of the deal, at least US$1.1 billion, and the fact that each of the countries behind the U.S.-Israel-UAE normalisation “Abraham Accords” signed last August are significantly involved in it, the deal was rightly regarded as being one of the most significant material developments since Israel and the UAE agreed to normalise ties last year.
For Israel, over and above the financial value of the deal is the strategic significance of the Tamar gas field that lies in the eastern Mediterranean as it is one of the country’s primary energy sources, able to produce 11 billion cubic metres of gas each year.
This is sufficient not just to cover much of the Israeli gas energy market, but also to lay the basis for the strategically important roll out of gas exports to Egypt and Jordan. Underlining this, last month saw a comment from Delek Drilling’s chief executive officer, Yossi Abu, that the deal potentially marked: “A strategic alignment in the Middle East, whereby natural gas becomes a source of collaboration in the region,” in the spirit of Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.
The deal was to have been finalised this month, which in turn would have opened up the way for further co-operation between Mubadala and Delek Drilling in the nearby -and even larger- Leviathan gas field. Last week, though, Tamar field operator Chevron shut down the offshore Tamar gas platform in Israel, amid the escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine.
Should this trend of increasing violence between Palestine and Israel continue, then this may not be the only commercial deal under threat, as the very basis of the relationship normalisation strategy between Israel and Arab States comes into question. This deal between Israel and the UAE -announced on 13 August- came at around the same time as Israel’s Netanyahu announced that he was suspending plans to annex more areas of the West Bank that it seized during the 1967 Six Day War. At that time, the UAE had two principal aims in signing such an agreement. One was that it wanted to put itself firmly in the U.S.’s most-favoured allies group for receiving future business and financing deals, as it had suffered a big hit from the Saudi-led oil price war that had just ended. The other was that it wanted to be included in the U.S.-Israel intelligence and security network to protect itself from the growing influence of Iran.
HAMAS and the U.S. attitude…
Hamas seeks to position itself as the leading element in the Palestinian camp, the manager of a multi-front and multi-dimensional campaign, in active terms and clearly in cognitive terms of public perception.
For the Gaza Strip front, Hamas has portrayed itself as defender of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem, undeterred about launching salvoes of rockets at Jerusalem and into the heart of Israel, including targeting Tel Aviv, which hits a raw nerve; incited and ignited younger Arabs in Israel so that they take part in the riots that spiraled into what were essentially anti-Jewish protests, proving that it is the movement leading the Palestinian camp, while undermining the relevance of the Palestinian Authority -both in the internal Palestinian arena and in the struggle against Israel.
Supporting the Arabs in Jerusalem, Hamas is also getting political benefits ahead of the first parliamentary elections in Palestine in 15 years. In this respect, Hamas received a big gift for Ramadan from Washington. This year, Donald Trump left the White House, taking the US intentions to defend Israel’s interests with him. Not without the strengthening of the Jewish lobby during his presidency, Trump received the merited status of “Israel’s best friend.” To a great extent, it was due to his political proximity to Netanyahu, who shares the same rigid nationally oriented policy aimed primarily at defending state sovereignty. The support of the United States guaranteed the shaky stability in Israel.
On the other hand, the Biden administration rhetorically follows opposite principles. Its adherence to liberal ideas, as the basis of not only domestic but also foreign policy, has already deteriorated Washington’s relations with a number of countries in the MENA region, including Israel. As a result, the White House today seems to be more sympathetic to the “oppressed Palestinians.” It is symbolic that, while Washington have not commented on the situation in Jerusalem, the “Black Lives Matter” movement spoke for it, actively supporting the Palestinians. As a result, Hamas took a chance and it paid off. Israel has openly asked its once main ally, the US, not to intervene in the Jerusalem crisis.
Make no mistake though. The Biden administration does not forget about real national interests. It will not go to the complete distancing from its main partner in the Middle East, despite their sharp ideological contradictions. This is confirmed by the ambiguous US policy within the UN Security Council, where Washington hampers meeting in order to avoid the use of its veto in Israeli favour. The Washington’s laissez-faire approach, which seems to play into the hands of Hamas, is in fact tacit support for Netanyahu’s aggression. Thus, demonstrating its adherence to liberal values, Biden is stalling, allowing Netanyahu to resolve his problems by military means, without crossing the red lines. President Joe Biden has already told reporters that he did not consider Israel’s response attacks on the Hamas positions “…too sharp.”
TURKEY: “The mind is (probably) willing, however the flesh is weak”…
Ankara and Tel Aviv have a solid economic basis for bilateral cooperation and are interested in its mutually beneficial development. At the same time, the parties maintain significant contacts at the unofficial level, and declare the cooperation between their intelligence services. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which they both supported Azerbaijan, openly or tacitly, became a new impetus in their rapprochement. In its turn, Baku claimed its readiness to become a mediator in the negotiation process between Turkey and Israel.
Turkey, which, just days before the clashes, for the first time after a three-year break, had invited the Israeli minister of Energy, Yuval Steinitz, to participate in an official conference on energy issues, which are a key point in relations between the two countries, canceled the invitation abrutly. Even more, Ankara was contemplating to appoint its ambassador to Israel in order to maintain relations with Washington. Ankara was more than eager to move to the official normalization of bilateral relations, but the new round of escalation in Israel, terminated this process -at least for the forseeable future. The Palestinian issue, which serves to some extend as a Turkish lever of a sort for its “Grand Middle Eastern strategy” remains the main obstacle to the establishment of stable diplomatic relations between the countries.
Turkey’s reaction to the current conflict is illustrative, Ankara took the Arab side, once again highlighting the current weakness of Israel and the importance of Turkish international ambitions over bilateral relations with Israel. However, the political reality and interests of both sides remain, despite the harsh rhetoric and numerous calls from Ankara to the dysfunctional international community. Even more, Erdogan’s activity is unlikely to lead to Turkey’s intervention in the Israeli crisis, and his position will probably dissolve in a chorus of general “international condemnation.”
The rest stakeholders…
Europe, apparently, is following the US policy. Germany has historically become the European “godfather” of the State of Israel and officially declares its support for Israel, despite major protests in German cities, accompanied by manifestations in the synagogues and the burning of the Israeli flag. France, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, completely banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations and temporarily arrested the head of the pro-Palestinian human rights organization. There is also a significant opening for regional players to step up. White House Press Spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said May 13 that Qatar, Egypt and Tunisia “…can play an important role and have conversations with Hamas from that end.” It is a no-brainer that any cease-fire will ultimately go through Egypt, given its continued role as intermediary with Hamas, and that Qatar, which provides humanitarian and economic assistance to Gaza, will also be critical to an eventual cease-fire and in dealing with the post-conflict humanitarian crisis.
There is also a role for the United Arab Emirates and the Abraham Accords, once the dust settles, which may eventually provide a mechanism for dialogue and concessions, although the tough choices will of course be up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Abu Dhabi is well positioned as mediator and broker of deals, not just in the Middle East, but in the Horn of Africa.
NETANYAHU: Is “Bibi” the big winner (again) in Jewish-Arab violence?
Was the escalation inevitable, malpractice or cold-blooded political calculation? We don’t know. Nevertheless, the mere fact that many people -israelis and foreigners both- are asking this question is a demonstration of the low levels of trust in Netanyahu’s motivations as a national leader.
When rockets are raining down, however, and there is chaos in the streets, Israelis do not see it that way. Rather, the more there is security tension, the more there is fear and calls for revenge and tensions between Jews and Arabs, the more people move to the extreme. Τhese escalations will probably move Israelis further to the Right, which will strengthen Netanyahu’s position as the dominant or at least so-far-irreplaceable leader of the Israeli Right.
Indeed, rockets and riots have thrown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a life vest just as he was about to slip under water. With violent escalations both inside and outside of Israel, he is likely to remain the Prime Minister for the foreseeable future -even if only in a caretaker capacity.
With the government disbanded five months ago, a caretaker government with the same ministers remains in place until there is a new regime. A “change government,” also known as the anti-Netanyahu government, to be jointly led by “Yamina” leader Naftali Bennett and “Yesh Atid” head Yair Lapid, was expected to be sworn in after Shavuot, ending Netanyahu’s long, 12-year term in office. Nevertheless, the immediate result of the Gaza and domestic violence is that Netanyahu will continue in his role.
That is because Bennett, who was the key to forming this anti-Netanyahu government and was expected to serve as its first leader, caved in to political pressure from the Right and his party members, who did not really want this change of government anyway. The violence underscored these differences, slowed coalition talks and weakened Bennett on the Right.
In the middle of a major crisis, the country does not want a new prime minister or defense minister. The Prime Minister always looks good when there is crisis and chaos, and Netanyahu is milking this latest escalation -circulating images of himself on social media meeting with the top military echelon and in the field- to reinforce his reputation as a strong leader who is tough on terror and the only leader who can deliver a mighty blow to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations.
As in every Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years, the United States moved eventually to quell the violence. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr arrived in Israel to try to broker some form of cease-fire. Netanyahu moved to gain the upper hand before he landed, launching a ground-based artillery barrage to complement the air assault on Gaza, spurning Russian and Egyptian attempts to broker some type of de-escalation with Hamas.
Having seemingly slayed the Lapid-Bennett coalition, and after dealing a devastating military blow to Hamas, Netanyahu may now be willing to signal a willingness to wind down the operation, which would be well received in Washington. Τhe more likely scenarios are that either Netanyahu, with Bennett’s support, could pull together a coalition eventually, or the country will head into a fifth election, a move that would plunge Israel into another six months of political instability and paralysis. Either way, Netanyahu would remain at the helm, a scenario that had not seemed possible just a week ago.