by Jonathan Spyer
Israeli officials consider that the recent uptick in PIJ activity out of Gaza is part of an Iranian desire to draw Israel into a prolonged operation in Gaza - to divert attention from the more crucial front to Israel's north – in Syria and Lebanon.
Originally published under the title "Iran's Grip on Gaza Is Israel's Nightmare."
The latest short, intense flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza appears to have concluded. ... So should the latest confrontation be simply filed away as a passing episode in a seemingly endless, if mostly contained conflict?
Not quite. Israel's central dilemma regarding Hamas-controlled Gaza can be discerned behind Israeli decision-making in recent days. Observe:
The latest events mark the clear arrival of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) organization to a primary role in the ongoing conflict. The fighting was triggered by the targeting by Islamic Jihad snipers of IDF personnel on the border area on May 3rd. Two IDF soldiers – a man and a woman – were wounded. The attack took place against the background of a Hamas-organized border demonstration. Israel's response then led to further Hamas missile and rocket attacks.
The latest confrontation marks the arrival of Palestinian Islamic Jihad to a primary role in the conflict.
Rather, it is a purely military organization, which from its formation has been closely aligned with Iran. Its current leader, Ziad Nakhala, is based in Syria and is a frequent visitor to Teheran. The movement takes its direction from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Israeli officials consider that the recent uptick in PIJ activity out of Gaza is part of an Iranian desire to draw Israel into a prolonged operation in Gaza. This would be intended to divert attention from the more crucial front to Israel's north – in Syria and Lebanon. In that arena, an ongoing, undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran is under way. Iran is seeking to build an infrastructure for future attacks on Israel. Israel is trying to prevent this. Gaza is a mere irritant by comparison.
Ziad Nakhala replaced longtime PIJ leader Ramadan Shalah last year after the latter suffered a stroke.
But herein lies the dilemma. The desire to avoid allowing Iran to precipitate a conflagration in Gaza cannot extend to allowing all acts of provocation to pass unanswered. To do so would be to cast away deterrence. If PIJ or Hamas get the impression that attacks on Israel are cost-free, it may be assumed with certainty that they will become routine.
Hence, Israeli planners are faced with the difficult task of responding with sufficient ferocity to deter further acts of aggression, while avoiding a descent into all out war between Israel and Gaza.
The increasing tempo of attacks in recent months indicates that this difficult balance has not yet been achieved.
Israel must respond with sufficient ferocity to deter further aggression, while avoiding a descent into all-out war.
Criticism of the ceasefire that concluded this latest round of fighting from within Israel – from both within the ruling Likud and the main opposition Blue and White list – focused on what was seen by critics as the failure to extract a sufficient price from the rulers of Gaza before agreeing to a cessation of fire. But no major call was heard for an all out assault on Gaza. This may partly be explained by the great sensitivity in Israel toward military losses. But more importantly, the question of what would replace Hamas as the ruler of Gaza remains without an answer.
Israelis do not want to reoccupy the area. The Ramallah Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, would under no circumstances agree to receive the keys to the area from a victorious IDF which would just have completed a bloody victory over Palestinian forces. On the contrary – the PA would without doubt support any Palestinian resistance to such an IDF campaign.
Voices from the left in Israel in recent days have argued that only the resumption of a negotiating process between Israel and the PA can prevent further rounds of violence between Israel and Gaza. But the desirability of negotiations notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how this logic would apply, given Hamas's open opposition to any peace process with Israel, the 12 year inability of Palestinian factions to unite, and the PA's opposition to any IDF armed campaign into Gaza.
If the conflict is insolvable, then a fractured opposing camp is preferable to a unified one.
This logic, however, only holds if the hostile Hamas entity in Gaza can be deterred, and prevented from carrying out its stated desire to do harm to Israelis. The notion that Hamas could be incentivized by the injection of funds from Qatar has proven erroneous, or deeply problematic. It was a temporary delay in the transfer of a tranche of these funds which caused the Gaza rulers to stand alongside Islamic Jihad in the recent escalation.
The status quo is manageable only if the hostile Hamas entity ruling Gaza can be deterred.
On a tactical level, one way in which Israel could conceivably seek to raise the price for engaging in violence would be a return to a policy of targeted killings of Islamic Jihad and Hamas fighters.
The killing by the IDF of Hamas operative Hamed al-Khoudary during the last round of hostilities is thus significant. Khoudary was responsible for the distribution of Iranian funds in Gaza to organizations receiving support from Teheran. In killing Khoudary, Israel clearly sought to demonstrate to the rulers of Gaza that it is not willing to continue to act within the tacit rules that have held in recent years.
It will be important now to see if Israel continues with this practice regarding the Hamas rulers of Gaza – precisely as a means of raising the price for violence against Israel, while avoiding a descent into a wider conflict.
Israel's killing of Hamed al-Khoudary, Iran's primary financial liaison to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, may herald a return to targeting terrorist leadership in Gaza.
At the same time, the events of recent days demonstrate the difficulty of deterring an Islamist movement which, while weak, is engaged in what it regards as a long, unending war of attrition intended to eventually wear down and destroy its enemy (as far-fetched as this may sound).
Israel looks set to continue for now to maneuver between the twin undesired outcomes of being drawn into a large, costly and open-ended campaign in Gaza, and absorbing an ongoing campaign of violence emanating from the Strip. Tactical responses – increased targeting of Hamas and Jihad leaders and infrastructure, more Iron Dome batteries – are likely to be the order of the day. It's a far from perfect answer for the frustrated population of Israel's south, and for the people of Gaza suffering under the yoke of their Islamist rulers. Some dilemmas have no easy solution.
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