The Gaza Strip Erupts: Cast Lead Redux?

Earlier today [November 14] Israeli aircraft killed Ahmad Jabari, the commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Jabari was a well known figure to Palestinians and Israelis alike; he was a leader of Hamas’s violent campaign to take control of the Gaza Strip and decimate the presence of its secular rival Fatah in the Strip. Jabari was also the central figure behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. His assassination marks a major escalation of an ongoing rocket-and-airstrike exchange in recent weeks.

The escalation of the conflict, though dramatic, was not unexpected. In recent weeks Hamas engaged in a series of large-scale rocket attacks against towns in southern Israel. This was something of a departure from precedent in recent years, when smaller Palestinian organizations such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and not Hamas, carried out most of the rocket tacks. Though these attacks receive little coverage abroad, they naturally dominate the news in Israel, where hundreds of thousands of people — in a country of less than eight million — are under the threat of rockets and their daily lives are disrupted. The question now is what form this new round of fighting will take, and whether it can produce a longer-term quiet or lead to a far worse situation in both Gaza and southern Israel.

Broadly speaking, there are four possible trajectories for the Israeli operation. The first is to try and limit the scope of the conflict. Following the tactical success of targeting Jabari, Israel could have tried to contain the fighting, having sent a clear message to the remaining Hamas leaders of their vulnerability in case of a prolonged conflict. But Jabari’s prominence was such that the chances of a short skirmish were negligible; when deciding to target him, Israel clearly prepared for a wider operation to follow.

The second possible trajectory is a continued air offensive against Hamas targets and a prolonged campaign against the organization’s leadership, reminiscent of a series of targeted killings of Hamas leaders in 2004. Then, Israel changed its strategy and successively killed the head of Hamas in Gaza, including the organizations founder, Ahmed Yassin and later his successor Abed El-Aziz Rantisi. The Israeli security establishment viewed that campaign as highly effective in pacifying Hamas by attaching the cost of conflict directly to its leaders, rather than to the organization’s rank and file or to the Palestinian population at large.

The third trajectory is a repeat, in some form, of “Operation Cast Lead” that began in December 2008, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who still serves in the same post. Cast Lead included a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip but was not aimed at toppling Hamas; the invasion caused severe damage to Hamas’s military infrastructure but did little to alter the reality on the ground in Gaza. The scenes of destruction in Gaza and the international attention it attracted — including the report of the Goldstone commission — cost Israel dearly in the international arena but left Hamas in full control of the Gaza Strip.

Like Cast Lead, this operation (dubbed “Cloud Pillar”) came shortly before national elections in Israel (scheduled for January 2013.) Many will undoubtedly see this as attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to divert the electorate’s attention away from domestic issues toward national security, an area where he has an advantage, and to rally the public around the flag. Yet Netanyahu, it should be remembered, also finds himself constrained by the upcoming elections. Whereas at a different time he might opt for restraint, he now faces severe public pressure to alleviate the threat of rockets. Any government — including a dovish one — would be forced under the present circumstances to respond, though not necessarily in a such dramatic way.

The fourth and final trajectory would be an even more extreme version of Cast Lead. In recent months Hamas has been strengthening its position even while the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is teetering on the verge of fiscal collapse. The root problem, in Israeli eyes, is Hamas’s control in Gaza. Many in Israel — including, reportedly, the general of the Southern Command at the time of Cast Lead, Yoav Galant — preferred a comprehensive approach, i.e. bringing down Hamas by force. An attempt to do so today necessarily would be bloody and costly, but, some in the Israeli establishment argue, would be the only solution to the continued conflict along the Israel-Gaza border.

For its part, Hamas will undoubtedly intensify its rocket attacks from Gaza and perhaps use longer range missiles that can reach the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv. Indeed, expecting a Hamas reaction, Israel has already struck hidden, underground stocks of longer-range Fajjar rockets, much as Israel did at the very start of its war in Lebanon in 2006 against Hezbollah.

It may also try to resume attacks inside Israel, which it has largely refrained from utilizing in recent years. While the organization’s ability to send suicide bombers from the Gaza Strip into Israel is limited, due to the sealed and well-defined border along the Strip, Hamas has been attempting to revive its capabilities in the West Bank for some time.

And yet, whichever trajectory the Israeli operation takes, there is one central difference from Operation Cast Lead. Back then, the Gaza Strip’s other neighbor, Egypt, was ruled by the tough-minded and anti-Hamas Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was willing to suffer condemnation in the Arab press for sitting by as Israel conducted its ground offensive in Gaza.

Today, Egypt is ruled by Hamas parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. President Morsi of Egypt, although he has not shown much favor toward Hamas thus far, presents a very different actor than his predecessor. Though outright conflict between Egypt and Israel is highly unlikely at present, the Egyptian position complicates Israel’s calculus. Egyptian intelligence was instrumental in brokering a fledgling ceasefire in recent days — one that is now void — and Egyptians will undoubtedly view the Israeli action as deliberate escalation. Israel will have to weigh the need to bring quiet to its civilian population against the costs not only of a bloody operation in Gaza, but of the threat to the strategically-crucial relationship with Egypt.