Israel’s Defense Ministry and its army recognize that Hamas in Gaza is gearing up for a fight. Since the end of the 2014 conflict, the terror group has been digging tunnels, improving rockets, amassing weapons, training fighters — and yet Israel’s military has been largely quiet.
Last Tuesday, the head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Hertzi Halevy warned a Knesset committee that the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip could further push the coastal enclave into desperation and war with Israel.
Hamas has set up military outposts right along the border, and last week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told reporters that Hamas is building “both defensive and attack tunnels — we’re not kidding ourselves.”
The writing is not just on the wall, it is in the newspaper and the parliamentary record.
“There are inevitable threats coming down the pike. And certainly [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Ya’alon are sure that Israel’s going to be attacked again,” Dr. Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told The Times of Israel.
So if conflict is inevitable, the question becomes: Why is Israel allowing its sworn enemy to rearm and better entrench itself for the next round? Why allow Hamas to dig tunnels, when they constitute a significant potential weapon against Israel?
Strictly from a tactical standpoint, it is always preferable to catch your opponents with their pants down. But the strategic gains of another tunnel-busting operation, Israel’s military planners believe, pale in comparison to the cost — especially because a victory for Israel in such a conflict would not completely eliminate its root cause, Hamas.
Moreover, that conflict would be detrimental to the people of southern Israel and the State of Israel, the very groups such a war would trying to help.
For what would be the umpteenth time, a military operation in Gaza would disrupt the daily lives and economy of southern Israel, which has scarcely recovered from 2014’s Operation Protective Edge; it would again devastate Gaza, catching the Strip’s civilians between the terrorists who use them as human shields and the IDF; it would again wreak diplomatic havoc on Israel as a country, as photographs and videos of war-torn Gaza would appear in newspapers and computer screens around the world.
Though the murmurs and rumors of a possible normalization of ties with Turkey could change the facts on the ground, most experts agree: War with Hamas is inevitable. “But the timing of it is not at all inevitable,” according to Sachs. “It could be two years, it could be very soon — within the next few months — but it could also be in four or five years.”
Escalating towards war
Hamas appears to be stuck in a state of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand it denies intentions to escalate violence, while on the other it does everything in its power to provoke the Israeli public.
“We’re not interested in war. We’re interested in tahdiya (temporary calm) and quiet,” a senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel this month.
‘There are no overt indications that Hamas is intending to start a new confrontation’
Hamas has professed its lack of interest in renewed conflict not only to Israeli news outlets but also, reportedly, to its allies.
“There have been communications from Hamas via Qatar and Turkey that they are not looking for a confrontation,” Mark Heller, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, told the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in an interview earlier this month.
“There are no overt indications that Hamas is intending to start a new confrontation,” Heller said.
That matches the consensus among the country’s defense officials, including the head of IDF operations, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who told reporters earlier this month that Hamas is not yet prepared to start a conflict with Israel.
The threat is coming and the threat is real, but Hamas is not interested in war today, Alon said.
But at the same time, the terror group is actively antagonizing Jewish communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.
Residents claim they can actually hear Hamas digging tunnels. This is unlikely, as the soil and rocks in the area are not capable of transmitting sound well enough. More likely, the industrial and military sounds coming out of the Gaza Strip, which have been recorded within Israel, are a misinformation effort by Hamas designed to terrorize and disturb the population of southern Israel. And it is working.
“For 15 minutes we heard detonations and explosions. Afterwards there was total silence — and then calls in Arabic, that sounded like the war cries of fighters,” a resident of one of the Jewish communities outside the Gaza Strip told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper last week. “It is terrifying.”
Those residents, who have been living under the threat of Hamas attacks — previously in the form of Qassam rockets and now in the form of tunnels — are pushing for the government to act before a terror cell enters a Jewish community and carries out an attack.
Under the actual threat of Hamas and the panicked pressure from citizens who read reports of Hamas bragging about its tunnel infrastructure and see photographs of military outposts near the border with Israel, the government has made a variety of statements to reassure the public that it is taking the threat seriously.
Last week, Netanyahu promised local government officials that the army was “likely to find an imminent solution to the problem of tunnels from Gaza.”
Earlier this month, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot hinted at technological developments to detect and eliminate these tunnels, citing “advanced capabilities” and presumably referring to the rumored tunnel detection system that Israel has been developing in response to the underground threat from Gaza.
Perhaps most overtly, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai intimated to Palestinian media about surreptitious efforts by Israel to destroy the tunnels.
When asked if Israel was responsible for the recent rash of tunnel collapses, Mordechai, who serves as Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, responded: “God knows. I would suggest the residents of the Gaza Strip not occupy themselves with the tunnels and get away from them, especially after seeing the results in recent days.”
Eisenkot, during the same speech in which he pointed to “advanced capabilities,” also pointed to the possibility of a preemptive strike, saying the option was “being discussed in the places where it needs to be discussed.”
Hitting them first
Israel has carried out preemptive strikes in the past. By far the clearest example is Israel’s bombing runs against Egyptian planes that helped kick off the Six Day War in 1967, which crippled the Egyptian Air Force and gave Israel near total air superiority throughout the conflict. More recently, when Syria began developing a nuclear reactor, Israeli jets bombed the facility in 2007.
“Preemptive action makes sense if your adversary is getting stronger and you have a certainty — or very high likelihood — that there’s going to be a conflict,” Sachs said over the phone.
On the latter there seems to be widespread agreement. The former point, however, is not so clear.
“The question with Hamas is that though they are building their arsenal, are they getting substantially stronger such that a war now would be better for us than a war later?” Sachs asked.
And his answer is no.
Israel is technologically and militarily leaps and bounds beyond a Hamas at full capacity. The terror group is no pushover; another round of conflict will lead to Israeli civilian and military casualties, but regardless of any gains made by Hamas with its tunnels and weaponry, Israel’s advantage over Hamas will remain “overwhelming,” Sachs said.
In an article, “Past Lessons and Future Objectives: A Preemptive Strike on Hamas Tunnels,” Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of Military Intelligence, argues in favor of a preemptive strike on Hamas’s tunnels, saying that option is second only to a technological solution to counteract the tunnels that is not yet “ripe for use.”
However, Yadlin said, that strike will only be effective if it has a “a clear strategic objective that, unlike all previous military encounters, has the potential to effect a fundamental change in the balance of power and the dynamics between the sides.”
The problem, however, is that Israel lacks that clear objective, since for Netanyahu and Ya’alon “potential losses loom far larger than potential gains,” Sachs argued.
At this point another conflict would not oust Hamas. It would just be another case of Israel pulling up weeds, knowing they will simply grow back in another few years.
And the cost for a preemptive strike would be dear. In exchange for the comparative benefits of fighting a less prepared Hamas, Israel would have to give up something precious: its quiet.
Not peace, but quiet
The current “quiet” in southern Israel is tense, strained and threatened by the possibility of terrorists infiltrating Jewish communities through underground tunnels and killing the inhabitants. But albeit flawed, the quiet is crucial, and the more of it the better.
Though they may be afraid, the residents of Jewish communities surrounding the Gaza Strip are still working in the fields along the border — producing food and making money.
A few years of respite can allow the south to rebound and rebuild. The difference between a war with Hamas in Gaza today versus one tomorrow is “huge,” Sachs said.
“If you have to hide every day in a bomb shelter, you can’t have a normal life or much of an economic life,” Sachs said. “Ariel Sharon, who was not a big peacenik, extolled the virtues of just some quiet.”
Sharon was specifically referring to northern Israel, which in the mid-2000s was at risk of rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the same logic applies to the residents of southern Israel.
“That extra amount of time of quiet would be enormous for the people in the south of Israel, and it would be enormous for Israel diplomatically,” Sachs said.
In addition, a preemptive attack or large-scale operation in the vein of 2014’s Protective Edge, 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense or 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead would not actually solve anything.
“Another round, fought by the same rules, is not recommended; it will only exact high costs from both sides while producing no positive results for Israel’s long-term security,” Yadlin wrote in his article for the think tank earlier this month.
“If you’re going to bring down Hamas, if you have a plan for what happens afterward, if you reasonably think you’d be better off, then there would be a logic for going to war. You could end this cycle of recurring conflicts, and then you wouldn’t have another 2,000 dead in two years,” Sachs said.
“But the assessment of Netanyahu and Ya’alon is that they don’t want to bring down Hamas because they don’t see a viable alternative. Therefore, biding their time and postponing the conflict, from their perspective, is the goal,” he said.
Turkey, Egypt and unintended escalation
The nature of Israel’s standoff with Hamas leaves it highly vulnerable to rapid and unwanted escalation, according to Sachs, who is currently writing a book on Israel’s grand strategy and worldview.
“There’s this unofficial tit for tat, this macabre menu of what the price for each thing is,” Sachs said.
A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip that lands in an open field, for instance, “costs” Hamas an Israeli airstrike on one of its unmanned training facilities.
A more serious assault on Israel would result in a more serious response against Hamas, which can quickly escalate into all-out war.
That has been the pattern of the ongoing conflict with Hamas, and it will likely remain the modus operandi until something dramatic happens, like an overthrow of Hamas — which is something no one in the Israeli government is seriously considering, Sachs said.
But a possible game-changer in this dynamic could be in the works.
“A lot of these rumblings about changing things in Gaza — which have not been changed in 10 years — have to do with a deal with Turkey,” Sachs said.
The ongoing talks with the Turks, who hold some sway over Hamas, and the potential for an export-only seaport for Gaza, which would grant the coastal enclave some economic relief, could alter the nature of the conflict and may be closer than expected.
Ankara and Jerusalem may release a joint statement “in the coming days,” the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News quotes the country’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, as saying.
Israel has been largely quiet on the negotiations with Turkey, save for Defense Minister Ya’alon who has displayed a healthy amount of skepticism at the prospect and expressed a generous dose of criticism toward Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I am not sure that it will be possible to reach an arrangement of relations with Turkey. Perhaps we’ll succeed, but they will have to address our conditions in order to overcome existing obstacles,” Moshe Ya’alon told a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, earlier this month during an official visit.
“Turkey is hosting in Istanbul the terror command post of Hamas abroad. We cannot accept this,” he said, as an example.
“It is going to annoy the Egyptians tremendously. They have already signaled that they don’t like this because Egypt has very strained relations with Turkey and Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Sachs said.
Normalized ties would also mean “giving Turkey a role in Gaza, even an unofficial role in Gaza, which might tie Israel’s hands if and when Hamas violates agreements,” Sachs said.
But there are benefits to normalizing ties with Turkey. Clout with the NATO member-state can help Israel diplomatically around the world and strategically in Syria. Ankara could also become a buyer for Israel’s natural gas fields as they come online, an issue that is of the utmost importance to Netanyahu, Sachs said.
But until some long-term resolution for Gaza can be found, the best Israel can hope for is just some more time until the next conflict.