10 bouts in Gaza later, Israel not much closer to preventing the next round

The Strip remains a powder keg, with terror groups just waiting for another excuse — like Sunday’s bulldozer incident — to set it off

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An explosion is seen following an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in response to the firing of rockets by Palestinian terrorists in the coastal enclave toward Israel, February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
An explosion is seen following an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in response to the firing of rockets by Palestinian terrorists in the coastal enclave toward Israel, February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel’s two-day battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group this week was its tenth major round of fighting in the Gaza Strip in the past two years.

No Israelis were seriously injured in this bout, and the roughly 100 rockets and mortar shells fired at southern Israel caused minimal property damage, as some 90 percent of projectiles heading toward populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the military.

With the accumulated experience from nine previous conflicts, Israel has gotten markedly better at fighting these one-to-three day battles — while doing little to prevent them from happening in the first place.

But the Islamic Jihad also appears to have improved its tactics, firing its rockets with greater accuracy at Israeli communities. In one barrage of 14 rockets, 12 were directed toward populated areas, requiring interception by the Iron Dome, whereas in the past a far greater number would have struck open fields without the military needing to intervene.

The immediate catalyst for Sunday and Monday’s flareup was the poorly handled aftermath of a well-handled mission to prevent two PIJ members from planting a bomb along the border. After killing one of the Islamic Jihad operatives, the Israel Defense Forces sent a bulldozer into the buffer zone within the security fence to retrieve the body, a scene that was caught on film and elicited anger and disgust within Gaza and around the world.

In this frame grab from video, an Israeli military vehicle removes the body of a Palestinian fighter after he was shot and killed by soldiers while planting a bomb along the Gaza-Israel border, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. (AP)

The strong reaction to this incident provided the PIJ with an excuse to retaliate, which it did on Sunday evening, with dozens of rockets fired at southern Israel.

But this was widely seen as little more than an excuse for the Iran-backed terror group to carry out a larger-than-normal assault on Israel, having long been working to undermine the ceasefire negotiations between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas with more limited attacks — intermittent rocket launches, sniper fire, infiltrations and border bombings.

The IDF retaliated with its own greater-than-normal response, striking a PIJ facility inside Syria, south of Damascus, killing at least two members of the group. This appeared to be part of interim Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s strategy of responding more forcefully to attacks from the Strip. But instead of dealing a crushing blow to Islamic Jihad to force it to back down, the terror group said the attack prompted it to fire yet more rockets at Israel as a form revenge for the deaths of its operatives.

Dozens of rockets and several rounds of retaliatory airstrikes later, both sides wound up roughly back where they started.

Bad carrots, weak sticks

It has become commonplace to say that the current Israeli government does not have a strategy for the Gaza Strip — a densely populated Palestinian enclave with widespread unemployment, a contaminated water supply, electrical shortages and little hope for the future — but this is not entirely accurate.

The government does in fact have a plan for Gaza and its de facto ruler Hamas: one of offering “carrots” in the form of economic and civil incentives while calm is maintained and punishing the Strip with “sticks” — halting incentives and conducting airstrikes — when that quiet is disturbed.

A car bursts into flames after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Flash90)

The issue with that policy is that it is ineffective in preventing violence from the Strip — as evident by the 10 rounds of sustained fighting in May 2018, June 2018, July 2018, August 2018, October, November 2018, March 2019, May 2019, November 2019 and, now, February 2020.

The “carrots” currently being offered are not appetizing enough to encourage Hamas to fully halt its terrorist activities and to fully rein in Islamic Jihad and other groups in Gaza, and the “sticks” are insufficiently painful to discourage attacks against Israel when it’s politically convenient for terror groups in the Strip to do so.

This is not likely to change regardless of who — if anyone — wins next month’s election. The proposals offered by the main political rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, are effectively more of the same, but more so.

Gantz calls to first engage in a determined diplomatic effort to reach a ceasefire with Hamas, including the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers currently being held by the terror group, and if that fails, then a major operation in the Strip to “restore deterrence.”

But more alluring incentives for Gaza come with significant security drawbacks, like a long-heard proposal to allow tens of thousands of Gazans into Israel to work, which the Shin Bet security service has staunchly opposed for years on the grounds that such a system would be used by Hamas and other terror groups to carry out attacks.

So long as Hamas — a terror group expressly dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel — remains in power in Gaza, Israel is also unlikely to dramatically change or reduce its blockade on the coastal enclave.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (center) and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (right) in southern Israel on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

And a large-scale campaign in Gaza to once and for all topple Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad would likely come at far too high a price in terms of Israeli casualties and either would force Israel to again fully control the Palestinian enclave — something it gave up doing with the 2005 disengagement — or would leave a power vacuum in the Strip that could result in something worse than the current situation.

Yet without a major change, Israel is liable to go through yet more rounds of fighting any time the PIJ, Hamas or other terror groups in the Strip decide to take issue with the way the IDF responds to rocket fire or an attack along the border.

Last May, escalation came because the IDF opened fire at a manned Hamas observation post in response to a PIJ sniper attack on the border that injured two soldiers. In November, it was because the IDF assassinated a senior PIJ leader — Baha Abu al-Ata — who was behind many rocket and border attacks and whom the military said was actively planning more. And on Sunday, it was because of an ugly fight over the body of a PIJ member killed by the IDF as he and another operative planted a bomb along the security fence.

The strategic corporal

There is a term used in the IDF to describe how these kinds of low-level events on the ground can have outsize consequences: “the strategic corporal,” or in Hebrew, “HaRabat Ha’Estrategi.”

This appeared to be the case with Sunday’s events, when poor handling of the retrieval of the body escalated into two days of vicious violence that wreaked havoc on the economy, daily routines and mental health of residents of southern Israel.

Israeli military surveillance footage of two alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad members planting what appears to be a bomb along the Gaza border on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

Around dawn on Sunday, Israeli troops shot dead an Islamic Jihad member who was planting a bomb near the security fence, along with a second operative who was seriously injured. According to the IDF, they had planted two other explosive devices along the border in recent months.

Shortly afterward, the military sent the bulldozer into the buffer zone to retrieve the body, as part of interim Defense Minister Bennett’s policies that put a premium on hoarding terrorists’ corpses for the purposes of negotiations.

While this was not the first time Israel has retrieved the body of a terrorist, this operation was conducted in broad daylight and was caught on film. The footage, which appeared to show the heavy engineering vehicle mangle the corpse before carrying it away, dangling from its bucket, spread rapidly on social media and sparked outrage not only among Palestinians but also within Israel and around the world.

Despite representing a clear expression of the defense minister’s policies, the military quickly understood that the operation to retrieve the body could have been handled better.

An Israeli military bulldozer enters the Gaza buffer zone to retrieve the body of a suspected terrorist on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture/Shehab news)

According to the Walla news site, an initial investigation of the incident found that the driver of the bulldozer was relatively young and inexperienced. In his panic to quickly retrieve the body, he appeared to mutilate it with the vehicle’s bucket.

“It is clear to everyone that what happened in the field was a mistake. It should have been done differently, maybe with a more professional and experienced driver,” friends of the driver told the outlet.

The military said the investigation into the incident was ongoing, but denied reports that the bulldozer had accidentally left the buffer zone surrounding Gaza and entered the territory of the Strip without proper approval.

“There was no mistake,” an IDF spokesperson told The Times of Israel, adding that “of course” the driver received permission to enter Gaza territory.

While it is easy to blame this week’s fighting on the IDF’s highly public retrieval of a corpse, in the end this was not the true cause of the violence — nor will whatever miscalculation or mistake precedes the next flareup.

Military Intelligence has long warned that Gaza — with its rampant unemployment and deteriorating living conditions — is a powder keg which Israel must address before it collapses completely (and did so again last month in its annual assessment).

And yet the country’s political leadership is either unable, or unwilling, to do so.

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