Sunday, December 28, 2008

Analysis: Cast Lead

“Cast Lead” was the code name given to the Israeli air strike on Gaza that started on Saturday, December 27th. Major media outlets report death tolls of at least 250, the vast majority of which were Hamas security forces. So far it appears that 15 civilians were killed. The wounded could be upwards of 700. There were well over 100 targets that been identified months earlier that included all of the main Hamas military headquarters, security and police stations, training camps, and weapons facilities.

According to Yaakov Katz, writing in the Jerusalem Post:

“The decision to launch such a blow against Hamas on Saturday was made during last Wednesday's security cabinet meeting. A secret meeting was held again on Friday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, where the timing was finalized.
After several of the decisions from Wednesday's cabinet meeting were leaked to the press, Barak decided on a strategy of deception - to deceive Hamas into believing that Israel was not planning to strike back.
Barak took two actions to achieve this - the decision to open the Gaza crossings on Friday (which was announced on Thursday) and leaking to the press that there would be another cabinet meeting on Sunday to decide whether to attack. This created the perception that Israel was holding off on an operation when in reality it was fueling and arming its aircraft.”

As I write this (now Sunday evening in Israel), the IAF is continuing to attack targets in Gaza, including the Al Aqsa television station used by Hamas and a mosque identified as a base used for terrorist activities. As Y? pointed out, we were all expecting this, but we did not know when or exactly in what form it would come.

I want to address this operation from a few different angles. First, let us talk about the operation’s goals. This is the first of several attacks in what is likely to be a sustained operation lasting several weeks. While the targets will be military, Israel understands that only an overwhelming ground operation lasting many months, maybe even a year or two, would lead to a military defeat of Hamas. Therefore, its main goals is likely to be to break Hamas’s will and continue the fighting so that it can eliminate enough of Hamas to establish a more comprehensive ceasefire that would apply to both Hamas’s overt and covert activities and truly provide peace for its citizens in the south. Some are suggesting that the goal is to overthrow Hamas and give control of Gaza to the PA. This is questionable. The PA is weak, and it is only able to maintain control of the West Bank because it is receiving support from America and Israel. Taking on Gaza would stretch the PA very thin, too thin, and would require significant US and Israel support. This poses a significant problem, however. Neither the US nor Israel can be seen helping in Gaza – the residents would reject it. What is good for Israel is not good for the Palestinians goes the logic in Gaza. If the PA were to retake Gaza, the required support from Israel and the US would have to be entirely silent for the Palestinians to accept PA rule.

Second, let us talk about timing. It should not come as a surprise that Israel launched the attack prior to President-elect Obama’s inauguration. Assuredly Mr. Obama would not have allowed for an operation of this scale to go forward. It must be made clear that for this kind of operation American approval was required. The US and Israeli governments would never state this publically, but it’s tantamount to Israel being considered a nuclear power: Israel would never confirm nor deny its capability, but that Israel does have the ability is one of the worst-kept secrets in foreign policy. Over the last two or so weeks, rocket fire on Southern Israel increased dramatically as the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel broke down. These rockets make life miserable for the population within their reach. Under this condition there has been significant pressure on the Israeli government to retaliate. On Saturday morning, one of these rockets killed an Israeli.

For more information on the rocket fire, visit:

Third, let us look at the target. A few months ago many foreign policy experts were suggesting that Israel may target Iran before Mr. Obama took office. However, as time has moved forward the likelihood of such an operation became significantly less as America continued to lose influence in world politics, sped exponentially by the economic crisis. Given the current political climate in the US and abroad, even the most pro-Israel American President that the world has seen, President Bush, would not have green-lighted an attack on Iran. This decision stems from Iran’s second-strike capabilities, America’s inability, being tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, to stand militarily by Israel’s side, and the popularity of the soft diplomacy track. While the increased rocket barrage on southern Israel did escalate dramatically over the past two weeks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, it was the reality of America’s limited ability to support Israel that has stovepiped Israel into focusing on Gaza. However, Iran is a target by extension of this operation. More on that below.

Specifically, the direct target was the Hamas security apparatus. The term “security” is used very misleadingly in Islamic circles, just as terms like “freedom” are used very misleadingly in African circles. Terms like “police” and “security forces” used by Hamas, Hizbullah, et al., are tantamount to American terms like “Army” and “Department of Defense.” Make no mistake: these were Hamas groups that were also used for offensive operations against Israel by their participation in activities like clearing and protecting areas for rocket launchers and performing and providing surveillance intelligence on Israel border security (information such as movement timetables, etc) to Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Israel is also targeting businesses that that are sources for Hamas income. By targeting this group and its infrastructure, Israel has severely damaged Hamas’s ability to provide synthetically legitimized support to clandestine forces in the short term.

This last point is very important. Israel has a small window within which it can perform these operations. Not only is it hamstrung by the January 20 date, but it is also limited by the atmosphere in Israel. A slightly better kept secret than Israeli nuclear capabilities is that during each ceasefire Hamas receives large amounts of war supplies from its supporters, uses the downtime to dig tunnels under the border, conducts intelligence operations, plants operatives in Israel, and performs other actions along these lines. While this is known, it is not well understood internationally. Hamas benefits from cease fires not only because it re-stocks but also because it beefs up its war fighting ability during these periods. Israelis understand this very well, so when Hamas declared it would not renew the six month Egyptian-brokered cease fire, the Israeli government knew it must act quickly so as to prevent a Hamas offensive coming out of the cease fire.

Forth, let us address where this operation leads. Israeli leaders are promising more military action without giving a timetable on when it may occur; it will occur in the next couple of weeks unless President Bush expressly instructs a cessation to Israeli operations. The big question now is whether or not to launch a ground operation. The second Lebanon War started out with an operation similarly massive to Cast Lead where 90 targets were struck by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) based on the notion that the IAF alone could stop Hizbullah. When this proved inaccurate Israel was forced to go into Lebanon on the ground, ending less than successfully. The concern now is the same: can the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) succeed on the ground in Gaza? At the moment, Ehud Barak is not talking about a ground invasion. However, continued air strikes will most likely not be the only actions taken.

However the operation continues, expect attacks to pause intermittently so that Israel can feed the Strip with humanitarian aide supplies, as it is currently doing (ten trucks are being chaperoned into the territory as I write this while plans for thirty more on Sunday are being drawn up in coordination with humanitarian groups). This helps address international protests and also shows that Israel is not fighting the Palestinian people, a message delivered on Arab television on Prime Minister Olmert on Friday, the day before the operation. While Hamas security operations are down, expect Israel to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad clandestine operations, points of entry used by war suppliers, tunnels, and weapons stockpiles; essentially the Hamas jugular.

Also expect Israel to use its elite forces to target Hamas leadership whenever possible. In 2004 Israel killed three senior Hamas leaders in the span of a few months: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, and Ismail Abu Shanab. With these loses Hamas was spun into disarray. After Yassin’s death Hamas never found a religious leader to take his place. His death made Hamas more vulnerable to the argument that Hamas was a group of Islamic terrorists without a clear Islamic mandate. The death of Rantisi and Shanab created what could be called a locality crisis. Hamas was forced into naming their replacements in private so that Israel could not learn of their identities. The new face of the group became Khaled Meshal who, because he was based in Syria, created the liability of increasing disintegration between internal and external Hamas leadership. Haaretz is reporting that three senior Hamas officials (the commander of the Hamas police, the commander of the defense and security directorate, and the Gaza central district governor) were killed in the operation on Saturday. This is significant. While the most senior of Hamas leaders are in hiding outside of Gaza, these are three of the heavyweights who resided in Gaza. Look for Israel to create a leadership vacuum in Gaza by targeting as many leaders as possible, from the senior team on down to middle management, so that Hamas is forced into a significantly weaker bargaining position.

Looking more long term, it is worth noting that Israel is planning its first ever country-wide security exercise in July of 2009 that will include full participation of its citizens. Such an exercise shows that Israel understands well the kinds of attacks it could face in the coming years and sends a message to then-President Obama that Israel needs a demonstrable display of American support. The exercise shows faith in Israel’s ability to defend itself; were the exercise to go anything less than stellar, it would signal weakness to its enemies and put doubt in the minds of Israelis. Israel would only go forward with the exercise it if felt confident in its ability to ace the test. It also demonstrates that Israel continues to be willing to launch significant operations against its enemies by signaling that is interested in assuring its citizens that they will be safe when they do. This exercise tells Israel’s enemies that it will not heed their ultimatums.

Fifth, what messages does this operation send? Considering the results it sends the message that Israel’s intelligence agencies are doing well enough to have correctly scouted so many targets, an important victory for the intelligence community and Kadima leadership in the aftermath of the grave intelligence failures of the second Lebanon War in 2006. As a side note, so long as the operation continues to be successful it may benefit Olmert and Barak who could build a case for postponing the election.

It sends a mixed message to the President-elect Obama administration that while Israel does take American direction and interests strongly into consideration, it is fearful that Mr. Obama’s support will be limited and is thus willing to act unilaterally. Depending on how Israel continues the operation, it would not come as a surprise if other Arab countries or terrorists groups attacked Israel or stepped up support of Hamas, Hizbullah, and the usual crowd. This could test the incoming administration’s commitment to the Jewish state by putting the US in a position where it must publically issue policy positions. One of Mr. Obama’s greatest challenges in the Presidential campaign was to convince people that he is a pro-Israel pragmatist, a challenge that, while he did make significant headway, he did not complete. This will put his commitment to Israel to a clearer test.

To the Arab world it sends a message that Israel does not intend to scale down its military operation while it pursues the diplomatic route – that it will not have its hands tied behind its back while it negotiates. The real test for Israel in sending this message is how it ends the operation and the steps it takes afterwards. Israel must continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, especially if it succeeds in significantly deconstructing Hamas. In so doing Israel would need to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and the PA in the West Bank so as to show its intent on supporting a moderate Palestinian government that it will work with in the future.

The most serious message of all may be directed at Iran. One could read daily in the Post and Haaretz and YNet about the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah (loosely the PA). However, there is very little coverage of the internal power struggle between the Gaza-based Hamas leadership (internal) and the Hamas leadership based abroad (external). The key to understanding this is that when the external leadership gains leverage, so too do external actors like Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and when this happens, Hamas gets nudged towards even harder-line policies. However, when the external Hamas leadership gains leverage it provides Israel with a stronger argument when it presents its case to the international community – the more international Hamas appears the more Israel can push for international actions against it. It should be made clear that these external actors (Syria, Lebanon, Hizbollah, etc) are directly under the influence of Iran. With the incoming presidency of Barak Obama Israel may well have to step up these sorts of international efforts. The message to Iran that Israel is delivering with the operation is that it is ready to take Iran on from multiple fronts – militarily and diplomatically.

To the world the message may be a surprising one – that Israel is so keen on peace that it is willing to launch this kind of operation. So long as the West Bank and Gaza are controlled by different parties there will not be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If Israel strikes a deal with the PA, Hamas will reject it outright. The Arab world would debate the legitimacy of the deal, and Hamas would do its best to undermine it just as they did the Oslo process. It would likely launch attacks from the West Bank on Israel to weaken the PA. However, this scenario is improbable. What the pro-negotiation side has not realized is that is that Fatah is highly unlikely to accept any comprehensive agreement with Israel as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza. An agreement with only one of the two Palestinian factions would lead to two different international policies towards the Palestinian people, a reality the PA could not accept because it would undermine the essential Palestinian narrative of a unified people striving for independence as well as the PA’s own goal of representing the Palestinian people. As long the West Bank is controlled by the PA and Gaza by Hamas, Israel will have peace with neither. Significantly weakening Hamas now puts the territories one step closer to political unification and Israel one step closer to quiet.

Sixth, I want to turn our attention to how this plays out in the Arab community. Hamas officials have admitted that they were surprised by the operation. They believed that Israeli threats were rhetoric in the context of the upcoming election in Israel, and are blaming the Arab and Islamic world over their failure to exert pressure on Israel to stop the operation.

Hamas is accusing the Palestinian Authority and Egypt of colluding with Israel in this operation. A Hamas official told the Jerusalem Post that the reason security bases had not been evacuated prior to the operation was because Egypt had promised Hamas that Israel was not going to launch any attacks in the coming days. “We believe the Egyptians deliberately deceived us because they had given Israel a green light to attack,” he said. Mussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official based in Damascus, claimed that Arab parties had pushed Israel to attack: “We are astonished by reports according to which some parties have been urging Israel to wipe out Hamas.”

Another Hamas official told the Post that Abbas and his aides were telling Israel to take down the Hamas government so that the PA could return to Gaza. For its part, PA officials said on Saturday that they were ready to assume control of Gaza if Israel succeeded in overthrowing Hamas. One official said that its men in Gaza have been told to be prepared for the possibility of returning to power. However, the PA has flatly denied the Hamas accusations that it had urged Israel to attack Hamas. As stated above, it is improbable that the PA is strong enough in its current state to govern Gaza.

It is unlikely both that Israel sought Arab support or received Arab support prior to the operation. In seeking Arab support prior to the operation Israel would have been taking a huge risk in being exposed and in giving away potential targets. In giving support any Arab country would be taking the huge risk in being exposed as having supported Israel.

This acknowledged we have not seen a united Arab front against this operation. Quietly, no doubt, people within the Arab world are hoping that Israel will succeed in reducing Hamas’s influence. Egypt, Israel’s closest thing to a neighborhood friend, sees itself as a leader of the Arab world. There are few Sunni Arab issues that it does not involved itself in and seeks to show it holds more sway than its Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia – this is the primary reason you see them mediating the Hamas and PA negotiations. America expects Egypt to take an active role in issues that impact Middle East security as well, evidenced by the two plus billion dollars in foreign aid it receives annually from us. So far, though, Egypt has failed, and therefore stands something to gain in Hamas being routed by Israel. For years Egypt has allowed smuggling to occur along its shared border with Gaza that has permitted Hamas to survive despite strict international sanctions. Egypt holds the power over enforcing these sanctions and in essence can influence when Hamas and Israel go to war. If Egypt really does support the Israeli mission it will clamp down on the security of its border with Gaza.

I have thrown a fair amount of information at you at this point. Let me conclude by saying that we are witnessing a systematic attack on Hamas that Israel will not stop until Israel believes it can draw out concessions needed to provide safety for itself. This is the essential goal, the success of which will be used to judge the operation. All other goals, while important, will be icing and cherries should they succeed. Israel is looking to create a prolonged period of quiet that can be used to plan its next diplomatic and, perhaps, its next military, move.

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