A stunning initial success for the IDF. Now what?

The killing of Ahmed Jabari and the strategic blow to Hamas’s Fajr rocket capacity represent remarkable achievements for the IDF and the Shin Bet. The next phases are less clear

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Smoke from Israeli air strikes rising over Gaza on Wednesday (Photo credit: Edi Israel/ Flash 90)
Smoke from Israeli air strikes rising over Gaza on Wednesday (Photo credit: Edi Israel/ Flash 90)

Operation Pillar of Defense, from a military perspective, has begun with a resounding success. Ahmed Jabari, perhaps the strongest man in Hamas, is dead. And in a strike that is surely the result of years of methodical intelligence work, the IAF eliminated the majority of Hamas’s medium-range Fajr-5 rockets, which have the capacity to reach Tel Aviv.

These two strikes were cleverly unheralded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who kept their gaze ostentatiously on the Golan Heights earlier Wednesday – after the strike had already been ordered – perhaps lulling Jabari and others into an imprudently incautious state of mind.

Unlike the launch of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – which began on Hezbollah’s terms but also featured the stunning elimination of nearly all of Hezbollah’s long-range rockets on Day One – the early stages of this operation appear to have been coordinated from the bottom up.

Barak defined the goals of the mission in clear terms, a step that was not taken during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Dressed in his security chief garb of black leather jacket and black shirt, he said that Israel seeks to strengthen its deterrence; deplete and disrupt the Hamas rocket infrastructure; inflict wounds on Hamas and the other terror organizations; and minimize the damage to the Israeli homefront.

The first three goals have, to an extent, already been attained; Hamas will do absolutely everything in its power to ensure that the fourth is not until it has an achievement to present to the people of Gaza.

The IDF will keep up the relentless air pressure with the unspoken threat of launching a ground operation if Hamas and the other terror groups strike at Tel Aviv or other strategic areas.

Beyond that little is clear, for Hamas knows that Israel does not want to topple the regime entirely and usher in an era of chaos in the Gaza Strip, and Israel knows that it is very difficult to score points against a terror organization reared on the ethos of suicide and dispersed among one of the most densely populated civilian areas in the world.

“This is the beginning of an event and not the end,” Barak said, adding that the IDF was prepared “to broaden” the operation.

The initial airstrike, at 4 pm Wednesday afternoon, required both terrific intelligence work and incredibly fast cooperation between the Shin Bet and the Air Force.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the commander of the Air Force from 1996-2000, said on Channel 2 news that in this case, much like the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader and founder Ahmed Yassin in 2004, the Air Force probably didn’t have more than 20 seconds to execute the strike.

Jabari was traveling along with his son on Omar al-Mukhtar St. in central Gaza. The mere fact that he had managed to head the Murabiton, Hamas’ army, for the better part of 10 years means that he was not a foolhardy individual. He did not talk much, if at all, on the phone. He kept careful company. He did not repeat his movements day after day. Otherwise he would have met his end long before.

For the Shin Bet to be able to deliver the commander of the military wing at the start of a serious military confrontation is a startling achievement. One need only compare it to the fate of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban on the eve of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, who is reportedly still alive and well.

But the second part of the strike may even be more significant (depending on whether Jabari proves to have been an irreplaceable commander in the image of Hezbollah’s military chief Imad Mughniyeh). Within minutes the IDF wiped out “the majority” of Hamas’s Fajr rockets, Barak said.

Such a strike requires enormous amounts of accurate intelligence, painstakingly assembled and verified, since organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah hide their strategic weapons amid the civilian population.

The IDF carried out a similar strike during the night of July 12-13, 2006, when the Second Lebanon War began. In the space of 34 minutes the IAF managed to wipe out the majority of Hezbollah’s medium and long range rockets.

The IDF Spokesperson at the time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Miri Regev (now a Likud MK), said that had she known about the success of what was codenamed Operation Mishgal Seguli, on the first night of the war, she could have created sufficient media leverage to end the war then and there.

This time the IDF Spokesperson’s Office published the achievement immediately.

But the situation, of course, is different.

Israel has eliminated Hamas’s chief of staff. “The first thing they’ll do is seek revenge,” said a former deputy commander of the Shin Bet, MK Yisrael Hasson, on Army Radio, indicating that the organization will make a desperate and steadfast attempt to launch rockets into Israel or draw Israeli blood in some other fashion.

The second stage for Hamas, Hasson said, would be to cling “to their strategic holdings, the deterrence they have achieved with Israel.”

This means that it is extremely unlikely we will see Hamas calling for a ceasefire in the near future. It cannot afford to seem weak — even at the cost of an operation that is sure to end with a severely lopsided body count.

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