Israel’s successful targeted killing of one of Hamas’ top three (some would say the number one) strategic figures opens a new chapter in the bloody and complicated relationship between Israel and Hamas. Putting aside the phrases that are being used to describe this operation (“The Israeli Bin Laden operation”, “The biggest blow to Hamas in years”, “The first game changer since Operation Cast Lead”), three immediate comments need to be pointed out:
1. From the military perspective – Operation “Pillar of Defence” is a major intelligence and operational success. The method of targeted killings, which was launched in the Israeli battle against Hamas in the last decade, has been proven yet again to be a very precise and lethal technique which manages to eliminate targets with little collateral damage. It proves again that Israel has the upper hand when it comes to intelligence and operational skills and that no one is immune to the possibility of being viewed, targeted and assassinated.
2. From the international point of view – This operation is the first test case of the new diplomatic mechanisms in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring”. It is the first strategic targeted killing of a top Hamas figure in the Morsi era, the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime in Egypt now needs to handle a new situation with its brother movement in the Gaza Strip, and the silent and unclear relations between Israel and Egypt (both in the political and security echelons) will now be put to the test. Hamas’ leadership was very clear in its expectations from Morsi, quoting its officials in asking Morsi to ‘speak up’. The Obama administration, just recovering from a hectic campaign and conveying its will to focus on urgent domestic issues rather than international ones, might be forced to deal with a new degrading security situation in Israel and Gaza. The Palestinian National Authority – which as of today was going full speed ahead with their unilateral actions in the United Nations, and is on the way to becoming a non-member state – may need to adjust their strategy to face a continuous escalation of the security situation of their people in the Gaza strip and will need to combat Hamas in the public sphere over the headlines of “who can have the biggest Palestinian story” over the next few weeks.
3. From the political point of view – One cannot ignore the special and sensitive times that Israel is now facing. Ahmed Jaabri has been considered a top target for Israel for years now, and in my opinion is a legitimate target. Recent shelling of Israeli cities over the past week, resulting in over 100 missiles on homes, commercial centres and schools, stands as proof of this. But this operation will inevitably have political effects. It was enough to hear one of Hamas’ initial formal responses to the operation, threatening Netanyahu by warning him that his political destiny will be similar to Shimon Peres’ political destiny after 1996 targeted killing of Hamas’ Yehie Ayash, to convey the assumption that this operation is dramatic, possibly strategic, in aspects which hardly connect with the operational methods used to carry it out.
This operation may lead to one of several scenarios, all of which are extremely fragile and dangerous.
1. The light scenario: Hamas’ leadership (lacking one of its prominent and most influential figures) will decide to retaliate in a manner which will lead to “controlled escalation”; a pre-planned, possibly timed period of exchanges of fire. This will mean that Hamas will avoid launching its most dangerous and long-range missiles, will not broaden the range of targets in Israel (avoiding Tel Aviv or major cities which it is known to be able to reach) and as much as possible will try to avoid dramatic civilian casualties which would force Israel to broaden its retaliation. This scenario depends on Hamas’ actual ability to bite its tongue and afford this blow in order to minimise the direct threat over its actual existence and on Israel’s will to avoid escalation. On the Israeli side, given the political situation, it is sensible to presume that Netanyahu’s government would prefer to end this current cycle of violence at the soonest point. Every leader knows how a war begins, and that there are no guarantees about its end. This is not an easy risk to take just two months before the election.
2. The medium scenario: Hamas’ leadership decides to respond heavily to the operation, conveying the message that it does not fear Israel nor its threats. In order to avoid a complete state of war, which again grants no guarantees about its end, Hamas chooses either quantity or quality in its response. The former would entail firing dozens of missiles of the same range it has fired recently, not broadening their targets or their range of attacks in Israel. The latter would mean creating more targets in the strategic centre of Israel, expanding the range of their missiles and targets inside Israel and thus creating a direct threat to more than a fifth of Israel’s population. Hamas may decide, in this scenario, to launch only several missiles at the centre of Israel – essentially to prove their capabilities and to pose a new threat, enabling an end to this current cycle of violence (in simple words “You escalated, we escalated, we are not seeking a continuous battle, the balance of power remains”). On the Israeli side, it is unclear whether Hamas’ decision to broaden its range and targets in Israel may be tolerated, even if there won’t be many, and parameters such as the number of casualties and the sensitivity of Hamas’ targets would play a key role in the Israeli decision-making process.
3. The extreme scenario: Hamas’ leadership is unable to make a decision of a precise and timed response. It can’t control all the terror organisations in the Gaza Strip or the regional departments and their field commanders who are all armed with various missiles. The absence of a prominent commander- such as Jaabri – creates a vacuum which creates chaos in the overall fire from Gaza towards Israel. Another possibility is that Hamas’ current leadership, lacking a true commander, shifts to extremism and decides, as they stated in their formal response to the operation, to open ‘an all out war’ against Israel. They decide to response with quality and quantity combined, aiming to broaden the circle and numbers of casualties. The Israeli public would then insist retaliation and escalation in response. In such a scenario, an incursion to the Gaza strip would be inevitable and the fighting would take place both inside the Gaza Strip and in cities in the south and centre of Israel. It is impossible to determine how this would end.
The name of the operation – “Pillar of Defence”- is derived from a biblical quote about those who guard the camp. While it is unclear what will happen in the coming days in the region, and if a sense of security will return to Israeli cities, one thing is clear: This will not be another Cast Lead. In the three years that have passed since then, Hamas is now better armed and better placed geo-politically in the new Middle East. Israel, of course, didn’t sit still either. It is better equipped, especially in its civil defence with the new “Iron Dome” systems which targets missiles while they are still over the ground, and sharpened its intelligence and operational skills in urban fighting, based on the experience of Cast Lead (which it lacked in 2009 and since the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005). History proves that when it repeats itself, the cost rises. Hopefully, this will not be the case this time.