Like an open sore that refuses to heel, Gaza continues to be a thorn in Israel’s side. Though things remain on simmer for now, a full scale conflagration against Hamas and its junior affiliate, Islamic Jihad, is inevitable. As if to underscore this point, on Thursday, Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, announced that his group’s rocket capabilities have improved, and threatened that Hamas would not hesitate to launch rockets at Tel Aviv if attacked. He also stated that Hamas-orchestrated protests along the Gaza border would continue and intensify. Tellingly, Sinwar noted that Hamas receives financial and military support from Iran and that but for Iranian assistance, Hamas would not have been able to improve its military capabilities to the level where it’s at today.
Israel is accustomed to such belligerent talk from its enemies, which is often more bark than bite. Nonetheless, Israel’s leaders have every reason to take these types of threats seriously. A miscalculation by Hamas can instantly trigger a wider conflict.
Hamas has two immediate goals. The first is to hold on to the reins of power at all costs. Hamas does this by controlling Gaza with an iron fist, brutally suppressing all forms of dissent. But the terror group also needs to pay the salaries of those who ensure the regime’s survival. To this end, it relies on cash handouts from entities like Qatar and Iran, as well as taxes on goods smuggled in tunnels between Gaza and northern Sinai, and other extortion schemes.
Hamas’s second goal is to maintain relevancy. Wider issues affecting the Mideast, such as the Shia-Sunni divide, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the Islamic State, and proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya have regulated Gaza and the Palestinian issue at large to third tier. Hamas addresses this problem by causing disruption and mischief. To this end, Hamas employs various schemes to keep itself in the news cycle. But the terror group recognizes that it cannot push the envelope too far lest it incur the full brunt of the Israel Defense Forces and invite disaster upon itself.
Since April 2018, Hamas has orchestrated large-scale and often violent demonstrations along the border. Interspersed among the demonstrators are hard-core terror operatives who control the tone and tenor of the demonstrations. Also embedded among the demonstrators are Hamas and Islamic Jihad snipers who take advantage of the chaos created along the border to take occasional pot shots at IDF patrols and civilian farmers and motorists. This scenario unfolded in early May when Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives opened fire on an Israeli patrol, moderately wounding a male soldier and lightly wounding a female soldier. Israel responded by wiping out a Hamas post killing two operatives. Hamas and Islamic Jihad escalated the situation by firing rockets and Israel responded with airstrikes. The two-day spasm of Hamas-provoked violence which followed nearly sparked a full-scale war until Hamas backed down.
Hamas also employs kite terror to advance its aims. This relatively new and low tech phenomenon involves Palestinians attaching incendiaries to balloons or kites and having them carried off by easterly winds into Israel. Though no one has been killed by these nefarious actions, property damage to farms and nature reserves has been considerable.
The strategy of keeping the conflict on a low flame appears to be working for Hamas. So long as there’s no immediate threat to life, Israel has adopted a strategy of containment, employing troops to prevent demonstrators from breaching the border. Aside from the employment of drones to knock them from the sky and occasional airstrikes to frighten kite terror cells, no effective solution has yet been found for Hamas-orchestrated kite terror.
But this intolerable situation, where Israel is on the receiving end of constant Hamas needling cannot continue indefinitely. At some point in time, Israeli leaders will need to take decisive military action against the Hamas menace.
Factoring into Israel’s hesitancy to go to war in Gaza are two overriding considerations. First, Gaza is densely populated and represents an urban nightmare for a conventional army. Hamas cares little about civilian casualties and will not hesitate to employ its own citizenry as human shields. In fact, Hamas relishes in the prospect of a high civilian death toll, cynically exploiting it as a propaganda tool to foster world sympathy.
Second, Israel sees the more pressing threat as emerging from the north in Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy Hezbollah maintains a rocket arsenal that dwarfs the combined rocket arsenals of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah is believed to possess some 150,000 rockets and missiles including guided Scud surface-to-surface missiles. Hezbollah has also been attempting to upgrade some of its Iranian supplied Zilzal-2 rockets with GPS kits, instantly transforming these rudimentary, unguided rockets into deadly precision weapons.
Underscoring Israel’s concern, the IDF announced on Thursday that it completed the destruction of a complex Hezbollah tunnel, dug some 80 meters below ground, which could have been used by the terror group to ferry troops and equipment into Israel. The tunnel was one of six uncovered by Israel during Operation Northern Shield, which commenced in early December.
Israel’s present reluctance to deal resolutely with its Gaza problem is therefore understandable but there are some factors working in Israel’s favor. First, the Trump administration is sympathetic with Israel’s security concerns and Israel can expect strong political support from the United States. Second, sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Iran have taken their financial toll on Iran’s proxies including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Finally, even though Hamas’s military capabilities have improved, Israel’s capabilities have improved on a far greater scale. From improvements to Iron Dome to new tunnel detection capabilities to enhancements to the vaunted Merkava tank, the IDF is primed and ready to hand Hamas a decisive blow.
Given Hamas’s genocidal nature and its penchant for miscalculating, a showdown with the terror group is unavoidable. The sooner Israel rids itself of this festering menace, the better.