AnalysisGrabbing terrorists' bodies won't help

Despite attempt to change rules with Syria strikes, Israel’s Gaza policy failing

Hitting Islamic Jihad officials outside Strip is a new approach, but Jerusalem has been making many concessions to Hamas and getting nothing

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.

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)
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)

The latest round of violence between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group has not yet ended, but already there are a few things that stand out as different from previous rounds.

Syria commanders no longer immune

Israel may have chosen to strike various targets in the Gaza Strip, including rocket-launching cells, but the main response was far away, on the Syrian front, where many PIJ targets near Damascus were hit.

This is a surprising step, designed to make PIJ decision-makers think twice and thrice before attempting another attack. The military and the government are trying to set up a new equation by which escalation with Israel will hurt not only Gaza but also PIJ leaders in Syria, who have thus far enjoyed a degree of immunity from Israeli strikes.

This may not be the first time Israel attacked PIJ targets in Syria, but this time it is a direct reaction to rockets launched at Israel.

PIJ is doing quite a bit to lead to this escalation. The violence began Sunday early morning with the attempt to place a bomb next to the border fence and continued after the terrorist was killed and his body was dragged back to Israel by a military bulldozer. After a brief lull, the violence renewed Monday afternoon.

Even by its own standard, PIJ went overboard with its response, considering it all started with a cell trying to lay an explosive device. Having launched dozens of rockets into the night and on Monday, it is clear the organization seeks to drag the whole of Gaza into war — despite this being one of the better periods the Strip has experienced recently in terms of Israeli concessions.

A ball of fire and smoke rises above buildings during Israeli airstrikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 23, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Inaction by Hamas

Gaza’s Hamas terror group rulers have been staying on the sidelines of this latest crisis. They haven’t been trying to rein in PIJ; on the other hand, they also aren’t attacking Israel. After all, Hamas has much to lose — Israel is letting money flow into the impoverished Strip, is sending representatives to Qatar to ask Doha to continue sending funds and is allowing Gazan workers into Israel. If all those concessions disappear, Gaza’s economy will take a hit.

And yet, the “carrot and stick” approach doesn’t seem to be working. Israel gives one carrot after another, and still Hamas refuses to prevent PIJ from trying to drag all sides into all-out war. That is a dangerous and problematic bet that could eventually cost many lives in the Gaza Strip.

Body-snatching not helping

Israel’s policy of attempting to “contain” limited violent outbursts from Gaza is also not working. That is no secret. The logic that says significant economic concessions will cause Hamas to use an iron fist to ensure calm in Gaza has been exposed as a flawed conception.

The rocket fire has continued and the lack of a more forceful Israeli response is likely being interpreted as weakness.

The IDF officer who decided to take extreme action to collect the terrorist’s corpse likely didn’t imagine it would lead to dozens of rockets being fired at Israel.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

It should be said that it appears taking a terrorist’s corpse in Gaza as a potential bargaining chip will not lead to the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, held by Hamas since 2014.

That action only led to footage of the body on the bulldozer blade being spread all over social media.

However, ahead of next week’s elections, the step could definitely help Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is seeking to show he is treating Gaza in a different manner from his predecessors.

It is convenient for Bennett to present the footage of the body as the climax of some complex operation. However, the reality is that Israel’s underlying policy of making numerous concessions to Hamas without reciprocation will not bring about the return of the soldiers’ bodies anytime soon.

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