Iran and Hamas, here to stay 

Source: Iran and Hamas, here to stay – Israel Hayom

Neither Iranian forces to our north nor Hamas in the south will soon vanish. Israel is doing a good job of managing both threats. But given the sensitivity of the election period, can the government keep the situation on its borders from boiling over?

Yoav Limor // published on 15/03/2019
Soldiers with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force marching in Tehran 

It appears the celebration over the death of the Iranian presence in Syria was premature. Despite all the blows, strikes, and reports that it has suffered this past year, Iran is here to stay. Independent or working through its satellites, and despite the shaky economic situation and heated internal dispute at home, Tehran is not altering its course.

The exposure this week that Hezbollah was trying to establish a network on the Syrian Golan Heights was just the most recent example of Iran’s broad-based efforts. It was preceded by major transfers of weapons from Iran to Syria and constant attempts to build facilities and infrastructure that would support the activity of the Revolutionary Guards, which has a trifold purpose: to establish bases in Syria and Lebanon to open a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea; to expand the Revolutionary Guards’ influence; and to challenge Israel.

Even the most jaded would find it hard not to admire Israel’s military response to that challenge. The number of operations in the past two years has been unusually high, and only a few have been reported – the ones that ended with an explosion that couldn’t be hidden. Behind them lies widespread, varied activity by multiple organizations that has made Iran and its actions almost transparent for Israel. There is no other way to explain Israel’s ability to systematically attack weapons shipments shortly after they land in Syria or torpedo secret projects like Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels, precision missile factories, and the last military infrastructure that remained on the Syrian Golan.

This week’s choice to launch an operation for public opinion (not for the first time – the precision missile factories that Hezbollah tried to establish in Lebanon were taken out the same way) was intended not only to avoid actions that could lead to escalation. Its main purpose was to send a message to everyone involved: Russia and the U.S., Syria and Hezbollah, and especially Iran: Israel tracks, and neutralizes. Sometimes with missiles, sometimes with words.

It’s doubtful this will deter the Iranians. It’s also doubtful whether it will change the tactics used by Hezbollah, which is looking for other fronts on which to fight its war against Israel. Syrian President Bashar Assad might not know anything about the infrastructure on the Syrian Golan that was being run under his nose, but he owes such a big debt to Iran and Hezbollah after they spent years sacrificing themselves for the sake of his continued rule, that he doesn’t have much choice. He will have to bite his tongue and ignore it.

But Israel does have choices. Alongside its very effective military action in Syria, it needs to expand its diplomatic influence over the northern arena. Russia is currently busy rearranging Syria for its own convenience. The U.S. is showing very little interest. Israel should do everything to get its foot in the door and exert influence. The Russian desire for the Israeli Air Force to dial down its activity, allowing Syria to get back on its feet, is a good starting point for negotiations. Ultimately, it would allow Israel to push Iran into a corner.

It’s not inconceivable for Israel to present its own plan that would try to rope in Washington, Europe, and the moderate Sunni states in the region – who are sworn enemies of Iran – to stand up to Russia. With the civil war in Syria winding down, Moscow wants payment in cash for backing Assad. There are enough carrots to be placed on the table for Iran and Hezbollah being moved away. Just like the strikes and the reports about their activity, a plan like this wouldn’t stop them entirely, but it would certainly make their lives more difficult.

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip is burning, if on a low flame. Last week was marked by intensive attempts to reach some arrangement that would keep things in check, but the two sides have been keeping score for some time now – marking every bullet, every rocket, every bunch of explosives-laden balloons, every riot at the border fence during the nighttime marches, and every Friday protest. Nearly every incident has the potential to blow up.

Recently, things have gotten hotter because of two important upcoming dates: March 30 and April 9. The first, on which Palestinians mark Land Day, is volatile by its nature, and much more so this year because it will also mark the first anniversary of the violent border demonstrations. The second is the date of the Knesset election.

All intelligence experts in Israel hold the opinion that Hamas does not want a direct military conflict with Israel. Not because of any love lost, but because it fears what would follow. Hamas is afraid of losing power and mostly afraid to lose the people’s faith. It is worried that after another round of violence Gaza would emerge more badly beaten, poorer, more broken, and as the sovereign power there, it would be held responsible.

However, Hamas is in trouble. There is growing despair in Gaza. There’s no money or work. The residents are furious. The increased violence in the past few weeks – arson balloons, sporadic rocket fire – is a clear distress cry. Israel understands that and is looking for any solution that would prevent a war. Everyone – the Qataris, the Egyptians, the U.N. special envoy – is coming to Gaza to try and find a cocktail that will calm things down. The cash that was transferred this week, and a renewed attempt to make the aid money contingent upon job creation, are steps in the right direction, but Hamas wants more.

Hamas realizes that the time is ripe and Israel, whether it admits it or not, can be more easily pressured. There has already been a pre-election operation in Gaza (Cast Lead in 2008-2009), but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is careful when it comes to security and defense matters and experienced enough to know that the initial calls of support at the start of a war are usually replaced by harsh criticism when it’s over. In any case, Israel has no reason to rush into a war. Gaza-based terrorism is disturbing, absolutely, but not an existential threat. Lacking a complete solution for the Gaza problem, a war right now wouldn’t accomplish anything. The fact that an end to work on a barrier along the Gaza border is in sight keeps war cries from the Israeli side in check. Thus far, 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the 65-kilometer (40-mile) subterranean barrier have been completed, along with nearly 2 miles of above-ground border. The entire barrier, both the underground and above-ground sections, is slated to be finished by the end of 2019. Tactically, Israel should wait until the project is done. The barrier will definitely make things harder for Hamas in every aspect of its ground activity.

Nevertheless, reason may not prevail. Hamas is facing challenges at home. The border protests have produced a new sector in Gaza – young people who live from one protest to the next and go from an overnight provocation at the fence to daytime clashes there. They live their lives in Facebook groups and are cut off from the establishment. Hamas has no control over them and can’t stop them for fear of looking as if it is working against the interests of its own people.

The second challenge comes from the Islamic Jihad, which under the leadership of Damascus-based leader Ziad Nahala has become notably more extremist. Nahala, a native of Gaza, believes in jihad as a way of life. To a large extent, he is doing to Hamas what Hamas did to the Fatah movement at the start of the last decade. Zahala sees Hamas’ cautious policy as an opportunity to plant his flag. The sniper’s shot that hit an IDF company commander at the end of January – hours before a delegation of senior Islamic Jihad officials arrived in Cairo for talks – was a clear signal from the Islamic Jihad: We are here.

All these factors are forcing Hamas to make a decision. The balance sheet of this past year is giving the organization a complicated answer. On the plus side, it still enjoys broad support among the Gaza public, despite everything. It is managing to keep the protests at the border fence and has put the Gaza Strip back in the international Arab consciousness, thus bringing back Egypt as a mediator between it and Israel. On the negative side, it hasn’t done anything to abate the economic distress in Gaza or its own financial and military problems.

The next few weeks will be critical. Hamas will try to wrap things up before Land Day. If it can’t, it will unwillingly encourage extensive protests at the border. Once that happens, it’s a numbers game. The extent of casualties on the Palestinian side – or, heaven forbid, Israelis wounded by an arson balloon or rocket – would drag both sides into a place they have been trying to avoid for the past year.

The IDF is preparing for that scenario. New IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s first step was to step of preparedness to fight in Gaza. That is the aim of the entire army, from training to support systems (intelligence, logistics, technology.) At the same time, the military is busy trying to keep the population in Israeli communities near Gaza calm, knowing that civilian patience will play a major part in whether things quiet down or head toward war.

This week, Kochavi checked off the first major item since he took over as chief of staff. The conclusions he drew in the death of soldier Evyatar Yosefi during a navigation exercise at Nahal Hilazon, which included the dismissal of everyone in the battalion chain of command, were a clear statement.

There is no nice way of putting it: the commanders in Yosefi’s reconnaissance battalion were found to be unworthy. They might be great fighters and officers, but what arose in the investigation into the incident was shocking and embarrassing. There were over 30 basic problems in how the exercise was prepared and handled. One of the IDF conventions is that a commander must love his soldiers. The commanders who sat in their cars on a stormy night and refused to hear their soldiers’ distress as they warned about the imminent disaster mostly loved themselves.

The investigative committee, led by Col. Oren Simha, didn’t focus on the Nahal Hilazon incident alone. It took the opportunity to look into whether similar conduct existed in the other reconnaissance and combat battalions. The answer was negative. The chief of staff would do well if, in addition to devoting two days this month to safety in all units and improving the system of preparing training exercises, he dispatched officers to make sure the measures were being implemented in the field. Not only in training, but in every aspect of routine conduct and during operations.

Kochavi knows that what people expect of him is simple: to win. He and the generals in his staff discussed that in a workshop last week, which will be followed by at least two more meetings. There are a lot of questions, starting with what does victory mean; does victory look the same on every battlefield; and does victory justify the means and the price paid for it; not to mention what the IDF must do to achieve victory, both physically and mentally.

The IDF must not detach its aspiration to victory from recent incidents. No doubt, the paratroopers wanted to train excellent soldiers. But in doing so, despite everything good and their immense motivation, corners were cut and unreasonable risks were taken. The price for that is paid not only by the families whose children are killed or wounded but by the public as a whole. Incidents like these cause it to doubt the army and its commanders. Anyone who wants to win should start with that.


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