First-strike nation

Targeted killings in Gaza and Syria enhanced deterrence against Hamas and PIJ, but the strategy of preemption may be less useful against Hezbollah and Iran

Baha Abu al-Ata, right, and two other senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
Baha Abu al-Ata, right, and two other senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

On November 12th, 2019, the Israel Defense Forces carried out a targeted killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, leader of the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Al-Quds Brigades: “In the last year,” Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “he was the main organizer initiating the terror acts from Gaza against us. He planned and executed many terror acts against Israel. He has been engaged in organizing more terror acts these days. He was a ticking-time bomb.” This operation was most likely coordinated with another preemptive Israeli strike targeting a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, in Damascus, Syria. Israel, however, has not officially taken responsibility for the operation in Damascus.

The strike in Gaza was noteworthy in that it was completely preemptive; meaning there was no direct provocation by Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad that preceded it that would have justified an Israeli retaliation.

Preemptive strikes have long played a key role in Israeli strategic doctrine due to its lack of strategic geographical depth, small population, and small standing army in relation to its Arab neighbors. These factors make fighting a war inside its own borders highly disadvantageous for Israel. Furthermore, for many years, Israeli leaders firmly believed that since its enemies repeatedly call for its destruction, it has full moral justification to carry out a preemptive strike even during periods of calm and without any direct provocation by its enemies.

While Hamas formally broadcasted its solidarity with the rival Palestinian faction, it actually refrained from joining this round of fighting against Israel.

It goes without saying that Israel owes much of its military success over its 71-year history to the effective use of this tactic, going back as far as The Sinai War in 1956. It was during the beginning of the Six-Day War in 1967, however, that Israel became famous for this tactic, when the Israeli Air Force destroyed much of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air forces before their planes could even get off the ground. Other notable examples of preemptive Israeli strikes include the IAF’s destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian nuclear site in 2007.

However, in recent years Israeli leaders have shown reluctance in using this tactic. This seems to be the result of growing criticism, both internally and externally, of Israel’s military operations, especially in cases where the use of military force does not seem to be fully justified by the conduct of its enemies. Israeli leaders clearly remember the commissions of inquiry that were established following the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, and the Second Lebanon War. In all of those cases, the inquiries led to major political upheavals.

Under these circumstances, the decision to undertake a preventive strike in Gaza could be considered a daring political and operational decision, sending a clear message that Israel is ready to utilize this military tactic time and again. We believe this message would enhance Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis its enemies.

As could have been expected, the decision to launch a preemptive strike against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader has faced some criticism from senior Israeli politicians and officials. The main themes focus on the accusation that the confrontation was deliberately initiated in order to support Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to establish a right-wing coalition, and to neutralize the efforts of the opposition leader, Benny Gantz, to establish a coalition under his leadership.

Netanyahu dismissed those accusations outright. In his appearance shortly after the outbreak of the confrontation that ensued after the targeted killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, he stated that the operation was recommended by the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, and other high-ranking security authorities. The target, Netanyahu added, had been discussed for a few months in the cabinet and was executed when it became clear that there was a good chance to succeed without killing innocent people.

Indeed, the operation in Gaza was conducted with surgical precision, targeting the exact room in which al-Ata was sleeping and causing minimal damage to the structure as a whole. Other than his wife who was inside the room with him, there were no additional fatalities. The surgical precision of these strikes along with the high success rate of the Iron Dome Missile Defense System testify to the highly sophisticated technological advances made by Israel. They are rightly claimed to have tilted the balance in favor of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinian terror groups and their Iranian financiers: “The terrorists,” Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “assume that they can kill and wound Israeli citizens, and then escape our retaliation by hiding within a dense civilian population. This is no longer a valid assumption. We have now proved that we can target those terrorists anywhere they hide without hurting innocent people. This is a real change in the equation between us and the Palestinians terror groups.”

While the strikes did trigger a response from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it did not materialize into the war they claimed they were heading towards. On the contrary, after two days the Islamic Jihad group repeatedly asked for a cease-fire. Perhaps even more notably, while Hamas formally broadcasted its solidarity with the rival Palestinian faction, it actually refrained from joining this round of fighting against Israel. This certainly testifies to the enhancement of Israel’s deterrence image vis-à-vis Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Throughout the confrontation, Israel attacked more than 350 targets and caused significant damage to infrastructure all over the Gaza Strip. On the Israeli side there were no fatalities, though some civilians were wounded, and there was limited damage to infrastructure. Under these circumstances, Hamas wisely opted to stay out of the confrontation with Israel, despite knowing the decision would lead to criticism against them for deserting their Palestinian brothers in the midst of battle, and for not fighting to preserve Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza.

The operation in Gaza testifies to the strength of the Israeli political system. The decision to launch the strike, which could have led to a major warlike confrontation in Gaza, was undertaken in the midst of the most severe political crisis in Israel’s history. At the same time, the confrontation exposed to an extent Israel’s vulnerability. The massive rocket barrages, which Israel suffered for two days, forced the Israeli government to undertake far-reaching decisions with regard to ongoing activities in Israel. In fact, for roughly three days, over half of Israel’s routine activities were almost completely paralyzed due to the warfare carried out by a rather marginal Palestinian terror group. This fact raises deep concerns over what would happen if and when Israel will have to fight against much stronger enemies like Hamas, Hezbollah, or even Iran.

While it was by no means a decisive blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the operation can be considered a moderate success, with PIJ accepting a cease-fire without any conditions. Furthermore, Israel was able to keep Hamas out of the fighting. However, as recent rocket launches reveal, this modestly successful confrontation has not created an absolutely effective deterrence against Gaza-based terror groups and has not established a long enduring calm in Israel’s southern region. Moreover, this confrontation certainly does not contribute much to the resolution of the formidable strategic challenges posed by Iran — its nuclear project, its expansionist policy in the region, and its support of terror organizations — which is the real strategic challenge for Israel.

Israel’s hope that the United States under the Trump Administration would lead the campaign against Iran seems now unrealistic. The Trump Administration seems to be determined to decrease its engagement in the region to the minimum amount necessary. Under these circumstances, Israel is left as the only power remaining that is capable and willing to stop the Iranians from continuing their aggressive foreign policy.

Professor Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at Ashkelon Academic College and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Jacob Aaron Collier is a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel, and an MA candidate in security and diplomacy studies at Tel Aviv University.

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