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Case Analysis 27 March, 2012

The Israeli Aggression on the Gaza Strip

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.

Israel's recent assassination of Zoheir Al Qaisi, secretary-general of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), ignited a new round of aggression on the Gaza Strip. Over the course of the four-day attack on Gaza, Israeli Air Force jets bombed numerous targets, killed 26 Palestinians, and wounded dozens more. In response to the assassination and continuing aerial assault on the Gaza Strip, a number of Palestinian factions, especially Islamic Jihad and the PRC, launched some 300 rockets at Israel.[1] These projectiles, it is reported, resulted in far fewer and less serious casualties: four Israelis and a migrant worker suffered minor injuries while another migrant sustained serious ones. This round of clashes between the two sides is the most violent since Israel's December 2008-January 2009 war on Gaza. It is also important to note that the number of rockets launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip gives a false impression about the nature of the "confrontation" or the "war" and a faulty indication of the balance of power between the two sides. After all, the war is, in effect, one-sided, as evidenced by the discrepancy in the casualties and damage inflicted on both sides. In fact, Israel has almost complete control not only over the number of deaths it decides to inflict on the Palestinian side in each air strike, but also the identity of those it wishes to kill. The Palestinians' ability to inflict harm on Israelis and their property by launching rockets from Gaza toward, however, is severely limited, as evidenced by the modest damage caused in this latest confrontation. Indeed, not only do these rockets lack precision, and, therefore, the ability to strike their targets with regularity, they also carry extremely modest payloads that possess little destructive potential. Moreover, Israel has undertaken a number of precautionary measures that have significantly reduced its vulnerability to damage by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip can, including the fortification of residential areas and public buildings in the immediate vicinity of Gaza and strict measures to close schools and limit other public gatherings before and during any clashes with Palestinians. Moreover, Israelis' previous experiences have led the general public to become more responsive to army and police directives, as well as to heed sirens and other alarm signals. This is particularly true in places such as Beer Sheva and Ashdod, where sirens are able to alert civilians well in advance of any attack. In addition to this, Israel has been able, with the help of the United States, to develop "Iron Dome," a mobile missile-defense system.  According to Israel, Iron Dome is capable of intercepting almost 70 percent of BM-21 Grad rockets launched against areas where the system is deployed.[2] While this figure may be an exaggeration, it is nonetheless evident that Israel's air-defense capabilities have indeed expanded in recent years, notwithstanding the Jewish state's acknowledgment that there is no comprehensive solution to rockets fire from Gaza. Currently, Israel is believed to have deployed three batteries of Iron Dome launchers, with a fourth expected in April. The cost of each interception is estimated at USD 100,000.[3]


Justifying the Assassination

In the context of justifying the assassination of Al Qaisi, the third PRC head to be slain by Israel in recent years, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) alleged that he had been planning attacks against Israel from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and that his killing was designed to disrupt the "terrorist" cells he commanded, preventing them from carrying out such missions.[4] In keeping with standard IDF practice, the Israeli spokesperson and other Israeli officials and media outlets who repeated and promulgated these allegations provided no details of the alleged "terrorist" plot. Similarly, Israeli officials offered no information or indication as to how Al Qaisi's assassination would help foil the alleged plot given that, according to their own accusations, the fighters in questions were already in Sinai, fully prepared and equipped to execute the plot. Most importantly, it remains unclear why Israeli border patrols and army units could not have foiled the purported plot if the IDF already had advance knowledge of it. Even some Israeli analysts and commentators recognized the weakness and incoherence of these allegations and acknowledged that they were merely official cover for a purely political assassination.[5]

Al Qaisi's assassination can be attributed to the political position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government toward the Palestinian issue and their adoption of a pre-emptive stance in foreign policy. This policy has been evident in their dealing with the leaders of a number of Palestinian factions, especially in the Gaza Strip. By achieving this, Netanyahu seeks to control the Gaza Strip from outside by besieging it and destroying its infrastructure rather than through direct occupation. In addition to the siege, the Israeli government maintains a steady routine of air strikes and assassinations of this or that Palestinian leader - each attack, of course, justified as an unavoidable attempt to prevent an imminent "terrorist" plot against Israel.

The decision to assassinate Al Qaisi was made at the highest echelons of the Israeli political establishment. This is in line with political tradition and customary practice in Israel whereby decisions pertaining to military operations are made at or near the top if their repercussions may include a wide-scale military confrontation. For such decisions, the prime minister must grant approval - that is, when the prime minister is not himself the initiator of the plan.

A number of factors contributed to Israel's decision to assassinate Al Qaisi and then launch a series of additional air strikes aimed at killing several more Palestinian leaders. These factors are as follows:

  • Israel's regard for the assassination of Palestinian leaders as a cornerstone of its pre-emptive strategy in dealing with the Palestinian issue and refuses to abandon it, whether or not there is a ceasefire with Palestinian factions;
  • the severe imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinian factions, which means there is little to deter Israel;
  • the understanding and implicit supportive reaction Israel receives from the United States and Europe in the aftermath of such assassinations;
  • the weakness of the official Arab response and Arab countries' disinterest in the situation in Gaza, both of which encourage Israel to carry on with its policy of assassination; and
  • the relative unanimity of Israeli society, the Israeli political elite, and Israeli parties with regard to the policy of assassination and the absence of any real opposition to the pre-emption strategy in dealing with the Palestinian issue.

Alongside, and perhaps as a result of these factors, Netanyahu and his Likud Party benefit politically from the policy of assassination and repeated assaults on Gaza, as well as from the elevated position that security issues occupy on Israel's national political agenda. Netanyahu considers the security domain his principal strong point, one that gives him an edge over domestic rivals of different political persuasions. This is particularly relevant today as Israel is preparing for local and legislative elections in just over a year unless Netanyahu decides not to call parliamentary elections early. As a result, Netanyahu seems to be stressing the security issue, specifically those of conflict with Palestinian factions, Arab countries, and Iran. In doing so, he aspires to mobilize Israeli society and public opinion around the security issue and, therefore, away from more pressing socioeconomic issues which could undermine his popularity.


Israel: Mobilization, Threats, and Intimidation

From the beginning of Israel's most recent assault on the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the IDF chief of staff, and other senior military commanders were noticeably active in mobilizing Israeli society behind the attack. Netanyahu, for example, convened with municipal leaders from Ashdod and other parts of southern Israel that have been hit by rockets. From this venue, Netanyahu directed dire threats, declaring that the Israeli military would continue to deal heavy blows against Palestinian factions. Moreover, the Israeli prime minister praised the unity of the domestic front and its increased defense preparedness.[6] The following day, at a meeting of the Likud parliamentary bloc, Netanyahu announced that the IDF was ready and prepared to expand its military operations in the Gaza Strip if this became necessary.[7]

Ehud Barak also partook in this wave of inflammatory rhetoric, stressing in his statements that the IDF would strike hard at anyone plotting against Israel and its citizens.[8] The positions and opinions of all Zionist parties in Israel converged - whether they are part of the ruling coalition or in opposition. This convergence not only entailed an agreement over the justification of Al Qaisi's assassination and the subsequent wave of attacks against Gaza, but it also encouraged and demanded an escalation of the policy of brute force and assassinations targeting Palestinian factional leaders in the Gaza Strip, a situation which repeats itself when no price is extracted from Israel for its assaults.


The Iran Connection

As part of their efforts to market the assault on Gaza, Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership proceeded to link the territory with Iran. In a speech to the Knesset on March 14, Netanyahu suggested political, security, financial, and military connections between Gaza and Iran, accused militants there of being Iran's proxies, and predicted that Israel would ultimately defeat them.[9]

It is worth noting that Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah continued to figure prominently in the analyses of Israeli commentators, journalists, and analysts, all of whom sought to gauge the effectiveness and efficiency of Israel's defense strategy vis-à-vis rockets launched from Gaza. This group stressed two central issues: the limited scope of Israel's material and human losses as a result of the recent clashes and the success of Iron Dome. This, according to them, has important bearings for any future confrontation with Iran and/or Hezbollah. In fact, some analysts went so far as to conclude that Iron Dome's performance lent credibility to Barak's comment a few months ago to the effect that human loss in any potential future confrontation with Iran and/or Hezbollah would be relatively limited due to recent developments in air defense.[10]


Neutralizing Hamas

In the meantime, the Israeli government said it considered both Hamas and the Palestinian government in Gaza responsible for events in the Strip and demanded they take full responsibility for maintaining the cooling-off period and preventing Islamic Jihad and the PRC from launching rockets against Israel. Despite this, Israel was keen on avoiding targets associated with Hamas and the Palestinian government. Hamas, of course, strongly condemned the Israeli assault and called for an immediate ceasefire while also requesting that Palestinian factions abide by cooling-off. More importantly, Hamas made a concerted effort to restrain its cadres from launching any rockets against Israeli targets.


The Problems of a Ceasefire Agreement

From the first day of the Israeli assault, Egypt undertook to mediate a ceasefire. Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate led the effort, conducting constant communications with Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as with the Director of Policy and Political and Military Affairs at the Israeli Defense Ministry, General Amos Gilad, and the Director of the Planning Directorate at the IDF, Major General Amir Eshel. Egyptian mediation finally succeeded, and an agreement entered into force on March 13.

Nonetheless, disagreements over the conditions of the ceasefire quickly arose among the various factions and parties to the agreement. Islamic Jihad, for instance, argued that the agreement entailed an Israeli commitment to abstain from its strategy of political assassination, which the Islamic Jihad leadership would have claimed as a considerable victoryan achievement the party considered. Gilad, however, denied any such agreement or commitments stating that "the agreement is simple and straightforward: calm in return for calm," and asserting "there were no other conditions, promises or assurances."[11]


Summary

It seems that both sides will adhere to the ceasefire agreement mediated by the Egyptians. This is because Israel believes it is the unrivaled victor in this round of clashes: it assassinated a third PRC secretary-general along with 25 other Palestinians, wounded dozens more, paid no real price for its aggression, and reached a ceasefire agreement without committing to a cessation of its assassinations of Palestinian leaders. As a result, Israel considers itself to have been successful in achieving its objectives and is, therefore, uninterested in continuing the assault on the Gaza Strip. For the Palestinians, the situation differs. The central force in the Gaza Strip - Hamas and its government - were determined to bring an end to the assault and return to the calm of a ceasefire. This situation will inevitably impose itself on the other Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. However, it is obvious that this assault will neither be the last nor the most significant. Israel is clearly committed to its policy of political assassination in order to keep besieging and controlling Gaza. In the meantime, Israel is determined to expand its settlements in the West Bank in an attempt to change the demographics and pave the way for annexation.

It has become obvious to the Palestinians that any serious attempt to (a) breach Israel's siege on Gaza, (b) deter Israel's leaders, (c) force them to abandon their policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders, and (d) prevent the annexation of the West Bank will require a serious and solemn reorganization of the internal political situation in Palestine and a rectification of severe factional rivalries within the context of an all-encompassing national unity project. Only then can Palestinians hope to inflict heavy costs on Israel if and when it decides again to use strategies of brute force and expand its violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. In the meantime, Palestinian divisions and Arab disinterest only accentuate Israel's desire to act unilaterally and violently in order to achieve its goals, and reinforce the imbalance that allows it to do so.

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[1] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, "Israel's wake-up call," Haaretz, March 16, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, "Hamas watches while Islamic Jihad reaps the fruits," Haaretz, March 12, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1661750

[4] Avi Issacharoff and Gili Cohen, "Israeli strike in Gaza kills leader of Popular Resistance Committees and activists from Al Jihad. Tens of rockets target the South," Haaretz, March 9, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1660474.

[5] For more on commentators' questioning of the official narrative provided by Israeli officials, refer to the Haaretz op-ed page on March 13, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1662541.

[6] Yair Yagna, "Municipal Presidents of the South to Netanyahu: Launch another operation against the Gaza Strip," Haaretz, March 11, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1661496.

[7] Ophir Bar Zohar, "Netanyahu Prepared to Expand Fighting in the South," Haaretz, March 12, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1662156.

[8] Yair Yagna, op. cit.

[9] Jonathan Liss, "Netanyahu: Iranian Qaeda [base] in Gaza will be uprooted sooner or later," Haaretz, March 14, 2012,
http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.1663902.

[10] Ron Ben Yishai, "We must also know how to end," Ynet, March 12, 2012, http://www.ynet.co.il/ext/comp/articlelayout/
cdaarticleprintpreview/1,2506,L-4201612,00.html
.

[11] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, "Lessons from [...]," op. cit.