It was just a short phrase, almost lost in the chief of staff’s stream of responses to reporters’ questions on Tuesday as four days of Israel-Gaza cross-border hostility wound down. Had it not been thwarted by the airstrike that killed its mastermind in his car in Gaza City, said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Zuhair al-Qaissi’s planned terror attack in southern Israel would have had “strategic repercussions.”
It was self-evident that Israel must have had a very good reason for departing from its relative restraint of recent months and resorting to last Friday’s targeted killing of al-Qaissi. The security establishment would have known that the hit would likely prompt, at the very least, the salvos of rocket fire that kept a million Israelis from going about their normal lives for four or five days. The decision to carry out the operation would not have been taken lightly and without cause.
But “strategic implications”? The chief of staff, not one for hyperbole, surely did not use that terminology lightly.
Soon after al-Qaissi was killed, Israeli military sources highlighted certain aspects of his biography, and they provide some broad clues to the chief of staff’s reference.
The military sources noted that al-Qaissi was one of the orchestrators of last August 18’s ruthless infiltration north of Eilat from the Egyptian Sinai, in which eight Israelis — six of them civilians — were killed. The attackers had planned thoroughly and were well-equipped; they opened fire on a bus, detonated a bomb against an IDF patrol vehicle, and fired an anti-tank missile at a private car. Eight terrorists were killed on the Israeli side of the border before that incident was over; it is thought that at least two more were killed on the Egyptian side.
The Israeli military sources asserted, too, that al-Qaissi was planning a similar operation in the very near future; hence the imperative to stop him, sooner rather than later, even with the likely price of a dramatic escalation of cross-border violence.
And it was noted that al-Qaissi’s Popular Resistance Committees organized the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit from just inside the Israeli border in 2006. In fact, when Shalit was released after more than five years in Hamas captivity last October, it was al-Qaissi who gave interviews to the Arabic and international media, describing how Shalit had been interrogated, how he had been treated, how the PRC had rejected Israeli pleas for his release, and how the PRC had handed the soldier over to Hamas since Gaza’s terrorist government would be more adept at keeping him hidden from the Israelis.
Gantz’s fleeting reference to the strategic repercussions of the thwarted attack makes a great deal of sense in the context of those biographical details.
Al-Qaissi was a man who publicly crowed about his role in the Shalit kidnapping. Last August’s terror cells, it was publicized at the time, were found to be carrying handcuffs and other equipment that pointed to an intention to kidnap as well as kill Israelis — presumably to try to obtain another Shalit-style hostage, and force through another outrageously lopsided prisoner exchange deal. The kidnapping goal was thwarted last August. If al-Qaissi had succeeded this time with a kidnapping operation, that would certainly have constituted “strategic repercussions” for an Israel that ultimately capitulated to many of the Shalit captors’ demands.
Moreover, the August 18 incident spiraled into a crisis with Egypt. Some members of the terror cells were reportedly Egyptian. And five Egyptian security officers were reportedly killed in the course of the attack.
Initially, the Egyptians blamed Israel for the deaths of its troops; Israel countered that some or all of the Egyptian forces had been killed by the terrorists. There were reports, subsequently denied by the Egyptians, that Cairo was threatening to withdraw its ambassador. Israel issued a hurried apology for the loss of life and promised to investigate the incident jointly with the Egyptian authorities.
But in the frenzied anti-Israel climate of post-Mubarak Egypt, Israeli clarifications of what had happened barely registered, and the narrative that Israel had gunned down Egyptian troops resonated. Public protests against the shedding of Egyptian blood culminated in the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on September 10.
A second bloody shootout on the Egyptian border, with potential Egyptian loss of life, could certainly have had “strategic repercussions” for Israeli-Egyptian ties. The Egyptian military council’s Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi warmly welcomed Israel’s Yaakov Amitai when the new ambassador presented his credentials at the end last month. But the Egyptian parliament on Monday called for a cessation of relations with Israel over the IDF’s “barbaric” attacks on Gaza in the last few days. And parliament is rather more in tune with the public mood.
The latest flare-up may well now have come to an end, and the strategic repercussions of which Gantz spoke may have been forestalled for now. But other strategic implications of Israel’s new reality vis-a-vis both Gaza and Egypt are still becoming plain.
Even if, as it insists is the case, Israel has made no promise as part of the ceasefire arrangements to desist from targeted strikes on terror kingpins, clearly the resort to such hits is far more complex than it was previously. A million Israelis have seen what happens when the Gaza terror cells dip into their rocket arsenal. And impressively though the Iron Dome missile defense batteries performed, they were tested neither by large numbers of simultaneous salvos, nor by the longer-range missiles with which Hamas and its affiliates are equipped.
The destabilization of Egypt, furthermore, greatly complicates the IDF’s room for maneuver on the Egyptian border and in Gaza. Would a post-Mubarak Egypt stand idly by if Israel mounted another Operation Cast Lead-style ground offensive? Even if Tantawi wanted to, would he be able to resist the Muslim Brotherhood and “the street”?
And finally, while many Israelis — and many Gazans too, presumably — are sighing with relief that this flare-up has died down, with no Israeli loss of life and very few non-combatant casualties in Gaza, nobody can yet be entirely certain that the planned Sinai terror attack will not be attempted, despite al-Qaissi’s death. Operations like it take weeks of planning. And as IDF Spokesman Yoav Mordechai noted in a TV interview on Monday night, some members of the cells involved have already made their way from Gaza into the Sinai, with their weapons and their suicide-bomb belts, ready for action.
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