Creeping in through Syria, Iran is just a border fence away from Israel

Via its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, Tehran has all but succeeded in opening a second front against the Jewish state; in Gaza, Hamas wields coronavirus to deflect unrest

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

In the summer of 2018 it seemed Israel could breathe easy regarding Iran’s presence across the northern border. The Russians, so we were told, had successfully brokered an agreement between Iran, Syria and Israel that Iranian and Hezbollah forces would retreat some 70 kilometers from the border on the Golan Heights.

Apparently not.

On Wednesday it was reported that Israel’s air force had dropped leaflets over Syrian villages near the Golan border warning them to stay away from Hezbollah and Iranian facilities in the area for their own safety. Meaning – Iranian presence is no longer in question, neither 70 kilometers from the border nor only 7, with the most likely scenario being 70 meters. Iran, through its proxy the Hezbollah terror group, has increased its presence along Israel’s border, either through Syrian army outposts or independent outposts of its own.

Early Wednesday morning Israel was said to attack such outposts near Quneitra (and near Damascus), and just a week ago conducted a much more extensive attack within Syria against a wealth of Iranian facilities and outposts. The general feeling is that the extensive Israeli mission intended to distance Iran from Israel’s borders is far from achieving its goal – in fact, the opposite is true. The Iranians, via Hezbollah, are coming closer and closer, trying to establish another front apart from the Lebanese one.

The implications of such a front are problematic. It is clear that Hezbollah is currently not interested in an escalation in Lebanon, and is careful to avoid carrying out its promised ‘act of vengeance’ at the death of one of its members in an alleged Israeli strike in Syria. It could be that this is due to the negotiations surrounding the marking of the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah does not want to be blamed for blowing billions of dollars’ worth of future income from potential natural gas deals to the Lebanese coffers, leaving Lebanon in ruins once again.

Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag seen in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

The front in Syria provides Hezbollah with a very convenient arena of action at the grey fringes of the Syrian army, from which they can plant explosive devices and run. Or carry out a ‘sniper attack’ without accepting responsibility, leaving Israel in an awkward position and facing a serious dilemma – should it or shouldn’t it retaliate against Hezbollah, and if so where, and what would be the cost of such retaliation.

There is no question that Hezbollah has managed to create a genuine deterrence equation vis-à-vis the IDF through its chief’s Hassan Nasrallah’s claims that any attack against his men – even in Syrian territory – will result in injury to Israeli soldiers. Israel’s consent to this price tag has resulted in the army’s hands being tied when taking action against the smuggling of arms and rocket accuracy equipment from Syria to Lebanon.

The obvious example is the video clip taken some six months ago showing warning shots being fired at a Hezbollah vehicle driving near the border at Jdeidet Yabous, a village that helps the organization smuggle and convey militants.

The video, which was released online at the time, clearly shows that the attacking aircraft was purposely shooting near the vehicle, in warning. It was only after the passengers had ditched the vehicle and escaped that the vehicle was actually attacked and blown up.

This means that the IDF is using extremely surgical action against an enemy that has long since removed its gloves. Also, it seems that the IDF’s years of intense, round-the-clock activity to prevent the transfer of precision technology from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon was unsuccessful and the organization has laid its hands on it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s exposure of a rocket precision-guidance systems factory in Beirut is proof that Israel has decided to change tactics, aiming to embarrass Hezbollah at the very least, and possibly explain the results of a future escalation.

In reality, any such escalation will find Israel facing a much more dangerous enemy than it encountered in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, its last major conflict with Hezbollah. Although Israel’s army and Intelligence Corp have also advanced since then, it’s understood that the scope of injury to the homefront will be much greater than it was 14 years ago when rocket fire from Lebanon killed 44 Israeli civilians and injured over 1,300.

Israeli explosives experts inspect a Hezbollah rocket after it landed in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, August 9, 2006. (Max Yelinson /Flash90)

It now seems that the decision-makers in the Israeli government and those in Netanyahu’s close circle, who have denounced Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon — a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister — for stating in the run-up to the 2006 conflict that Hezbollah’s rockets were doomed to rust, have now adopted that statement as strategy: a prayer that the latest rains will cause as much rust as possible to Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and missiles. Otherwise, God help us.

Gaza is drowning in rain and COVID-19

The other threat Israel is facing is the financial and humanitarian situation in Gaza. Things can always get worse, as the saying goes, yet Gaza seems to insist on this maxim, and things there always seem to become worse. If unemployment, poverty and the hardships that Gaza routinely contends with were not enough – especially since the Hamas terror group seized control in 2007 – COVID-19 just added to the woes of its 2.2 million inhabitants.

“We currently have an average of 650 patients a day,” Abu Osama, a resident of Gaza, recently told this writer. “Today alone we have had six dead. Up until a few weeks ago we only had a few dozen patients, possibly one hundred. Now the feeling is that it has gotten out of control, not least because of the mentality of the population. They don’t wear masks. Why? People still feel that COVID-19 is not real, that this is a conspiracy and Hamas is lying and exaggerating the numbers to get more money from Qatar.”

“I’ll give you an example,” he continued. “In Gaza several people take the same taxi, let’s say at least four or five. Each trip costs a shekel (30 cents). Almost no one is wearing a mask. If the taxi comes close to a blockade the driver tells everyone, ‘put on your masks’. Do you get it? They’re trying to fool Hamas. Also, you need to understand that life before COVID-19 was hard, really hard. So as far as residents are concerned, nothing much has changed. Death was routine before the pandemic, so people here aren’t so fazed by it.”

“Another thing is there is no money and no work,” Osama said. “Stores close at 5 p.m. and curfew begins at 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next morning, and most people obey this. Restaurants are open from mid-morning to afternoon but they are only half-staffed. They used to stay open until midnight. The economy is dying. The stores, the markets, the malls. Everything is dead because there’s no money. If anyone opens after 5 pm they get a NIS 150 ($45) fine, and if they don’t pay, they go to jail.”

Hamas security officers stand guard on the main road of the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, October 30, 2020. (Adel Hana/AP)

The problem is that in many places, especially those considered the periphery of the Gaza Strip, Hamas enforcement is less noticeable and residents do as they please, even walking about after 8 p.m. A clip taken in the Strip depicts Hamas police violently dispersing a crowd of mourners who came to pay respects at a private home. The organization is now facing a problem, as its leaders fear that excess enforcement will result in serious dissent and even widespread demonstrations.

It must be said that initially Hamas was successful in coping with COVID-19. The terror group set up quarantine centers for all those returning from abroad, leaving them quarantined and closed off for close to 21 days. For a long time, Gaza was COVID-19–free.

Then things started to go wrong and the numbers kept rising. Even then Hamas was able to keep the disease from spreading one way or another. They implemented a traffic light model, color-coding areas by the severity of infection, and closures were enforced in cities and neighborhoods. Gaza was chopped up and divided into areas (north and south), cities and neighborhoods. The measure worked for a while, yet at the end of the day was unable to hold the flood at bay, and now the pandemic is running wild.

Since the pandemic broke out, 16,755 cases were reported in Gaza (as of Wednesday), of which 9,744 have recovered. The virus’s basic reproduction number is 1.4, which is disturbingly high. Any value above 1 means the virus outbreak is increasing and the rate of infection spread accelerating.

What is even more disturbing is the direction sensed recently among Hamas leadership. For some reason the organization is taking the trouble to publish false reports that Israel is preventing the entry of medical equipment into the Strip, possibly in an attempt to find a scapegoat. As someone who is involved in the goings-on put it: Hamas is trying to shrug off responsibility.

If Hamas blames Israel, then it can’t be blamed by its population. Israel’s security forces were unhappy with these accusations, and Major General Kamil Abu Rukun, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, published a video clip on Wednesday morning in which he categorically denied the accusations against Israel by “elements in the Strip.” Abu Rukun provided data regarding the medical equipment Israel has allowed into Gaza to help contain the pandemic. Among other things, Israel has provided test kits, protective gear and respiratory machines. Israel has even helped train doctors from Gaza in the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon to help operate the respiratory machines.

Still, Hamas’s campaign against Israel continues. Its kite and balloon arson units, which in the past have torched thousands of acres of land in Israel with airborne incendiaries, even published a statement warning Israel that the units will renew their activities unless Israel permits the entry of medical equipment. Why?

The most likely cause is because they’re scared. Hamas is afraid of an Arab Spring in which the population will enact widespread demonstrations that will undermine its legitimacy in Gaza. Hamas wants to avoid this at all costs, even if it means generating tension with Israel, as right now such tension between the populace and Hamas leadership can be felt.

An example of this was seen a few weeks ago: Hamas launched a few rockets into the sea as part of trials it was conducting. The video clip somehow ended up on the internet, possibly leaked by Hamas itself, yet most of the responses received were critical, not complimentary – mostly along the lines of ‘why do we need this right now?’

Police and medical personnel at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a road in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on September 15, 2020. (Flash90)

At the end of the day Hamas is facing the difficult dilemma that every government in the world is now facing: economy versus health. Yet in Hamas’s case, the economy had already collapsed. The question is if Hamas will deflect public outrage towards Israel to avoid getting hit themselves.

The drizzle of rockets at Israel in past weeks could be an indication of this. On the other hand, the first anniversary of Israel’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior commander in the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, which fell two weeks ago, was marked in relative quiet. Meaning, someone within Hamas made sure to keep the peace and proved they are still in control.

So how to explain the rockets fired last week at Ashdod and Tel Aviv, neither of which caused injury? The IDF is still insisting that Hamas’s version – that the launch was the result of a malfunction caused by lightning during a storm – is credible. Strange as it seems, all indications seem to back this up.

Is the accidental discharge of two missiles possible? This strange phenomenon reminded a person who has been closely monitoring the Gazan arena for many years of an event that took place about a decade ago in Ne’urim, a police training center not far from Mikhmoret.

A senior IDF officer, who was an expert on rockets, presented an array of rockets that had been fired at Israel to a group of police officers in order to explain the scope and extent of damage they caused. He focused on one type, a 107mm rocket. The officer, who was considered an expert in the field, was asked how the rocket was launched. He replied that two wires need to be connected, and proceeded to connect the two wires. Suddenly, the rocket ignited and launched itself from the classroom out to sea, miraculously not injuring anyone. So if this could happen to one of the IDF’s top rocket experts, who can say it couldn’t happen to Hamas?

With more rainstorms predicted for Israel and the Gaza Strip in the next few days, let’s hope they don’t lead to any malfunctions or rockets launched against Israel. Only time will tell if Israel’s “rust strategy” will work against Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s arsenals.

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