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Case Analysis 25 November, 2012

The Assault on Gaza Leaves Israeli Objectives Unachieved

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The Unit for Political Studies

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The Israeli assault on Gaza started on November 14 with the assassination of Ahmad Jaabari, the leader of Hamas's military wing. The decision to assassinate Jaabari was made by the nine-member Israeli Security Cabinet just one day prior to the assault in spite of a drafted truce proposal between Palestinian resistance factions and the Israelis, to be mediated by Egypt.

The Israelis had undertaken a premeditated ruse to deceive the Palestinians and Egyptians, with statements coming from a number of Israeli officials declaring that the confrontation with the Palestinian resistance movement was coming to an end. These statements were widely disseminated in the Israeli, and quoted in the Arab, media. The assassination of Jaabari, then, was an end in itself as far as the Israelis were concerned, an end that justified the violation of any truce, that misled and deceived the Palestinian resistance and Egypt. However, the Arab context during this assault was vastly different to that which prevailed during the 2008/2009 attack, a factor that deeply impacted Israeli calculations.

This paper examines the motivations behind and the objectives of the Israeli assault. Additionally, it sheds light on the factors that contributed to the assaults failure-which can be seen in that the end result was in accordance with the demands of the Palestinian resistance.


The Israeli Assault: Motivations and Objectives

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak listed three objectives for the assault on the Gaza Strip: revitalizing Israel's deterrent capabilities; striking the military capabilities of Palestinian military factions; and guaranteeing a long-term respite during which strikes against Israeli targets would end. By keeping the official reasons for the assault broad and ill-defined, the Israelis were then be allowed to freely define them retrospectively, fitting them to their actual achievements once the assault was over. Any such achievements could then be claimed to be the real military objectives, a particularly important point given how such factors will influence voters' behavior in the upcoming Knesset elections on January 22, 2013. 

The stated motivations and objectives of the assault, as claimed by Israeli Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak, appear weak and unpersuasive even to many Israelis. In fact, the Palestinian resistance managed to agitate the Israelis and succeeded in foiling the Israeli deterrent, particularly in two operations during which the Palestinian resistance attacked Israeli military jeeps near the boundaries of the Gaza Strip. It is also abundantly clear that motivations for the Israeli assault-especially since the two sides had agreed on the drafted truce one day before the attack-were tied to previously failed opportunities to assassinate Jaabari. The chance to "seize the moment" and exploit the timing was also connected to domestic Israeli concerns in light of the coming elections, as well as the attempts by Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to impose a military-security agenda, which bolster their parties' chances of securing more votes and ultimately serve their own interests, onto these elections. It is widely known that the Israeli opposition had come close to bringing a socio-economic agenda to the elections, taking advantage of the social protest movement that was widespread in Israeli society during the second half of 2011 and the outset of 2012. If social issues dominate the next elections, the ruling right-wing coalition will lose.

The available evidence, facts, and analyses, as exemplified in Israeli media, clearly indicate that Barak and Netanyahu's plan was, fundamentally, to wage a short-lived attack, whereby the assassination of the military commander Ahmad Jaabari would be followed by continuous bombardments using medium- and long-range rockets and missiles on the Gaza Strip. This would then be followed by applying pressure in the form of threats of a ground invasion in the Gaza Strip, thereby compelling  the resistance to accept Israeli terms for a ceasefire. In an attempt to lend credence to its threats of a ground invasion, and as a sort of psychological weapon, the Israeli government decided to theatrically grant its military's chief of staff the authority to call up 30,000 reservists for military service. Only two days later, they called up an additional 45,000 reservists. At the end of 2008, the Israelis only called up 10,000 reservists during the assault on the Gaza Strip.

After Israeli aerial attacks failed to meet their objectives and break the will of the Palestinian resistance, given their defiance throughout the bombing, the Israelis intensified their threats of carrying out a ground invasion. Barak and Netanyahu believed that the United States and a number of key European states feared such an Israeli ground offensive because it could lead  to an expansion of the conflict and negatively affect Egyptian-Israeli relations. They relied on the idea that the US and these other European countries would then pressure the relevant parties-particularly Egypt-to prompt an end to firing rockets into Israel before an Israeli ground invasion.


Israeli Miscalculations

It appears that Israeli calculations and threats were not predicated on anything credible. They engaged in this new assault on the Gaza Strip with the same mentality that had governed their last attack. Once again, they did not anticipate the changes in the resistance's capabilities or in the state of Palestinian affairs-Palestinians had been desensitized to the  idea of a "peace process". Additionally, they failed to factor in the region's emerging reality following the Arab Spring. These and a number of other factors contributed to the failure of the Israeli assault, but more importantly, they point to the real accomplishments of the Palestinian resistance.

Foremost among the resistance's achievements were the ending of the assassinations policy and a lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip. The defiance of the Palestinian resistance movement, the development of its fighting abilities, and the rallying of the Palestinian people-especially in the West Bank-were the most important factors contributing to Israel's failure. Making use of the revolutionary times taking hold of Egypt, and the absence of a functioning state  for over a year, the Palestinian resistance was able to bolster its supply of weapons to unprecedented levels. Previously, before it stopped supporting Hamas in the middle of 2011 because of Hamas's refusal to stand alongside the Syrian regime, Iran played an important and vital role in this supply of weapons. To support Gaza, and to assist the dismissed Palestinian Cabinet in the administration of the Strip, a few Arab countries provided funding while others contributed arms (Although these efforts were conducted secretly, they are well-known to the parties involved.).

While Israeli aerial bombardment against Palestinian factions and civilian targets continued, they failed to force the Palestinian resistance to accept their terms for a ceasefire. Hamas and Islamic Jihad remained steadfast to their conditions for a ceasefire, and reaffirmed their right to fend off the occupation and the assault, launching intense and effective rocket strikes against Israeli cities throughout the duration of the offensive, a move the Israelis did not expect. The Israelis failed to bring an end to these strikes, which had brought life to Israeli cities within a 40-kilometer radius of the Gaza Strip to a standstill, nor could they reduce their intensity. The bordering area in Israel was crippled by constant strikes, and was forced to close public facilities and schools. Civilians were either stuck at home or displaced and migrated north. In addition, the Palestinian resistance managed to scar the Israeli society's psyche and morale by striking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem several times. By keeping the Israeli domestic front susceptible to their long- and medium-range rockets throughout the conflict, the Palestinians were able to maintain the initiative. This led to Israeli anxieties regarding the resistance's potential ability to develop their arsenal of rockets and missiles in the future, particularly in terms quality, reach, accuracy, and payload. Such improved capabilities would give the Palestinian resistance the ability to fend off any Israeli attack on Gaza in future.

In contrast to the previous Israeli war against the Gaza Strip, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the world united against the Israeli onslaught, with protests and clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli occupation forces breaking out throughout the West Bank. The fact that all of the various Palestinian factions took part in these events is a harbinger of a prospective Palestinian popular social protest movement opposed to the occupation that will spread across the West Bank. Also, because a large number of Palestinian groups were able to join together to form a cohesive stance against the Israeli assault on Gaza, Palestinian popular pressure on Hamas and Fatah to end their internal differences-the primary requirement for achieving the aim of the Palestinian national movement-intensified.


A New Arab Environment and Post-revolutionary Egypt's Role

During the previous Israeli assault, the Egyptian-Israeli blockade was tightly sealed around the Gaza Strip. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remained active, and official Arab regimes were complacent towards Arab public opinion. The Arabs failed even to achieve consensus on a meeting where they could denounce the attack, with some major Arab states openly working to prevent the Gaza Summit, a conference held in Doha, from taking place. However, the wave of change sweeping through the Arab countries changed everything, and Arab governments used the pretext of the latest attack to break the blockade by organizing a number of solidarity visits to the Strip to denounce the attack and declare their support for the Palestinian people. In this situation, the cooperation of Egypt and the Arab League was clear.

The campaign to stand in solidarity and to end the siege began with the Emir of Qatar's visit before the Israeli assault. During the attack, his visit was followed by visits from Egypt's prime minister, Tunisia's foreign minister, the Arab League's secretary general, and a delegation of Arab foreign ministers. It is worth mentioning that the new, post-revolutionary Libyan government was conspicuously absent from this solidarity campaign.

Due to the significance of Egypt and its role in the region, the Israelis had been deeply concerned with the Egyptian revolution since change in Egypt would impact the nature of Egyptian-Israeli relations and the future of the Camp David Agreement, which ended the war between the two countries and bolstered Israel's regional status. Egyptian-Israeli relations gradually deepened until they became level strategic partners during the second half of Mubarak's reign. The January 25 revolution in Egypt changed the nature and quality of Egyptian-Israeli relations, bringing an end to this relationship between the two states. This was especially true after Mohammed Morsi was elected to the Egyptian presidency as their national prerogative had been freed from its earlier subservience to the American-Israeli regional agenda, particularly in relationship to the Palestinian cause. Despite its domestic difficulties, Egypt had succeeded in regaining its role in the region-one which was in opposition, and completely antithetical, to the role played by Israel and its belligerent policies.

In all past Israeli attacks, the Israelis relied on the Mubarak's cooperation to use all means at its disposal along the Gaza's border to pressure the Palestinians and force them to accept Israeli preconditions. Once Mohammed Morsi was elected, Israeli decision-makers were of two mindsets regarding their freedom to attack Gaza. The first of these stressed that in order to maintain a minimum level of relations with Egypt and avoid any potential rupture, they would have to exercise self-restraint and refrain from carrying out any major military operations against the Gaza Strip. A second point of view, while emphasizing the  importance of maintaining positive relations with Egypt, called for the new Egyptian government to be "acclimatized" to the given balance of power, which suggested that Egypt's reactions to an attack on Gaza, or the level of Egyptian compliance to such an attack, should be tested. Accordingly, any reactions to an attack would then be dealt with while not threatening a possible rupture of relations with Egypt.

The new Egyptian  reaction to the latest assault was fundamentally different from the way the Mubarak regime would have dealt with it-Egypt rejected the Israeli assault outright, standing side by side, politically and in terms of morale, with the Palestinian resistance. On the Arab, wider regional, and international levels, Egypt was politically and diplomatically active in trying to end the Israeli aggression, and the conclusion of a truce that would meet the conditions and demands of those in Gaza.


The Timing of the Assault

Unsurprisingly, Israeli society, including elites, political parties, and the media, stood behind the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Despite this official unity within the Israeli body politic, a clear sense of confusion within the Israeli political opposition, which had remained committed to the aims of the assault, became apparent. The opposition did not rise to the challenge of posing one specific question: why was the attack launched at this time in particular? Nonetheless, a number of prominent Israeli analysts did ask the central question: why did Netanyahu and Barak assassinate Jaabari, and why now? These analysts questioned whether it had been possible to carry out the assassination at an earlier stage, or perhaps to postpone it until after the Knesset elections.

The editor in chief of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz (Aluf Benn), as well as other Israeli analysts, affirmed that the assassination of Jaabari was connected to the upcoming Knesset elections. Since the Israeli public would stand behind its army and government, a struggle against an external enemy would greatly contribute to the chances of electoral success for the political parties that make up the government, leaving socio-economic issues by the wayside in the electoral agenda. According to Haaretz‘s editor, the Israeli government began imposing a security-military agenda onto the elections by waging war against a foreign enemy. This is not something new in Israeli politics. Ben Gurion did this in the run up to the 1955 Knesset elections by striking the Gaza Strip. Likewise, Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor (Osirak) in 1981 on the eve of another round of Knesset elections, and Shimon Peres launched Grapes of Wrath against Lebanon in 1996 just before the Israeli elections. This pattern continued with the 2008/2009 assault on Gaza, which preceded the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections.

Alongside Netanyahu and Barak's imposition of a security-military agenda on the Knesset elections, it seems that the assault on Gaza contributed to the weakening Ehud Olmert's position,  blocking his path to re-enter politics and preventing his leadership of an electoral bloc. The assault also served to diminish the popularity of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a manner that will impact any prospective votes in her favor.


Conclusion

The steadfastness of the Palestinian resistance in Gaza, and its persistence in bombing sites on the Israeli home front, intensively and with great efficiency, as well as the way in which the Palestinian people rallied around the resistance are all substantial factors that led to the failure of Israel's most recent assault. Additionally, Egypt played an effective role by supporting the Palestinian resistance, which won it the support of Arab public opinion and the Arab League-particularly the states of the Arab Spring-as well as regional support from Turkey. As a result, Palestinian resistance in Gaza managed, with Egyptian support, to impose its main demands on the truce reached in Cairo, which included provisions for an end to Israeli assassinations and the lifting of the blockade, both of which pave the way for a reconstruction of Gaza and serious efforts to end internal Palestinian divisions. On the Israeli front, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu and Barak will benefit electorally from the assault on Gaza, particularly since Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions succeeded in getting their major demands into the text of the truce agreement.