The first moments were characterized, as they usually are, by a sense of euphoria. Anyone who happened to be in the offices of one of the country's top military officials in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon could not miss the excitement that accompanied the farewell Israel organized for Ahmed Jabari. Jabari was a bitter enemy, challenging and cunning, who played several simultaneous games of chess with Israel, sometimes blindfolded, for years. For every mistake, he exacted a heavy price.
But the euphoria was quickly replaced with concern. Anyone who saw the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff descending from his office into the "pit" to personally oversee the operation, in efforts to eliminate the Fajr rocket depots in Gaza, could not help but notice the deep, serious look on his face, which accentuated the weight he carried on his shoulders. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, a calculated, level-headed man, understood that the initial, resounding success had dissipated and made way for hard, challenging work, with a lot of potential to go horribly wrong.
For several months now, Gantz has been trying to convince the government to change its policy regarding the Gaza Strip. He sought to toughen Israel's responses to terror, to dare, to relocate the problem westward, into Gaza. His stance, which enjoyed the support of field operatives and intelligence figures, was that Israel was losing control, and gradually losing its power of deterrence.
Evidence of this could be found in the growing intensity of the violent clashes with Gaza: in the shorter and shorter lulls between clashes, and in the growing intensity of the violence itself. Gradually, Israel found itself being led rather than calling the shots. The ones dictating the situation were the terror organizations, whose daring, and appetite, were increasing. Though the residents of Tel Aviv had only heard about the rocket attacks, in the south life had become hell. Early warning sirens have become a matter of routine, accompanied by a seemingly endless barrage of Qassam rockets and mortar shells.
You could say that it has been a combination of luck, civilian discipline and tons of cement that has prevented massive casualties and allowed the Israeli government to delay the inevitable confrontation. But no one in the know ever had a doubt, just as it was written countless times upon these very pages, that the next big offensive in Gaza was only a matter of time and not much time at that.
The trigger, the spark, was provided by Hamas, which recently shook off the restraints that severely restricted its aggression since Israel's 2008-2009 offensive, Operation Cast Lead. Lately Hamas has resumed openly orchestrating terror activity in Gaza. A plethora of reasons prompted the organization, under Jabari's leadership, to shift from passive to active aggression: the elections for Gaza leadership, which naturally prompted all candidates to toughen stances and take tougher action; the growing challenge posed by other terror organizations in the Strip, whose continuous jihadist activity made Hamas look like peace lovers who avoid taking action; the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama, which gave Gazans a sense that Israel's main diplomatic backing was weakening; the replacement of the Egyptian regime, prompting a sense within Hamas that the organization would enjoy the support of their Muslim brothers in Cairo; and speculation that the Israeli government would refrain from launching an offensive ahead of general elections for fear of public and political criticism.
These speculations, that, as aforementioned, were translated into terrorist activity, were immediately perceptible, both in actions and in rhetoric. Hamas resumed its activity and resumed taking responsibility for its attacks. Not only did terrorists increase the rocket fire across the Gaza border fence, the attacks on IDF personnel also intensified. Initially the attacks occurred just west of the border fence, on the security perimeter — the strip 300 meters (330 yards) wide where the IDF concentrates its activity preventing tunnel smuggling and bomb planting — and later spreading eastward into Israel proper.
There was evidence of this twice in the last week: First a tunnel packed with explosives running under the border fence was detonated (causing damage to an IDF vehicle), and then a missile was fired at an IDF patrol jeep.
In both instances Israel enjoyed a fair amount of good luck. No one in Israel had any advance intelligence of the explosives in the tunnel, which experts estimate took two years to dig. The tunnel was presumably meant to be used in a strategic terror attack, or possibly an abduction or infiltration of a large number of terrorists, at the right time, to carry out attacks deep within Israel. The IDF learned of the existence of the tunnel when it was detonated adjacent to a group of soldiers who were defusing bombs. The damage was minor, one soldier was lightly wounded, but the message was clear: Hamas is back in town.
Forty-eight hours later, on Saturday, Hamas struck again. This time a missile was fired at a unit from the Givati infantry brigade. This was an anti-tank missile that was supposed to explode first when hitting the target, and then explode again after penetrating the target. The first explosion did in fact occur when the missile hit the Israeli jeep, but the projectile went all the way through. The second explosion occurred outside the vehicle on the other side. The lives of the four Israeli fighters in the jeep were spared (one of them was critically wounded, another moderately and the other two only lightly). After that, even the most doubtful of cynics on the Israeli side realized that the rules of the game need to change before the next attack turns deadly.
Cutting off the head of terror
What prevented Israel from launching an offensive immediately after that event on Saturday was the weather. The heavy rain and the thick clouds severely restricted the capabilities of the Israel Air Force and prompted the powers that be to decide on temporary restraint. Hamas interpreted the restraint as Israeli hesitation and continued to strike. The onslaught on the southern city of Sderot on Sunday — the worst rocket attack on the city in years — was a clear signal meant to deter Israel from retaliating. While Jerusalem was deliberating how to proceed, Hamas again took the initiative, this time on the diplomacy front, and announced a cease fire.
No one in Gaza, Israel or the West had any doubts on how this round ended. Hamas started it, orchestrated it, and ended it when it wanted. Therefore, Hamas won. The obvious byproduct was the growing sense of frustration among Israeli residents of the south, and the media's and certain political circles' mounting criticism against Israel's weak response. Due to heavy pressure exerted by the Israel Security Agency and the IDF, and despite the knowledge that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could lose one of his most important assets — the relative calm in Israel — precisely ahead of elections, it was decided to go on the offensive.
The so-called "Forum of Nine" senior cabinet ministers convened on Tuesday morning and approved the plan. Contrary to previous instances, this time it was decided not to start from the ground, but rather from on high. The understanding was that if a ground operation were to begin the heads of Hamas would go underground and the IDF would have trouble targeting them (as was the case in the 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza). Another concern was that any delay could give terrorist organizations the opportunity to devise a strategic surprise of their own, by firing rockets into Tel Aviv in central Israel.
Therefore, it was decided to start with "cutting off the head" of terrorist leaders. Jabari was a top priority, but some of his underlings were also in Israel's sights. In the 24 hours that the ISA needed to close in on Jabari, immense pressure was exerted on the diplomatic echelon to take action, even at the cost of targeting a lower-level operative. Ultimately, the intelligence came through and the waiting paid off: Jabari made the mistake of coming out of hiding, and he was taken out.
The man who orchestrated the assassination was ISA Director Yoram Cohen, who oversaw the operation from the agency's war room. During his year-and-a-half term Cohen has already managed to talk with Jabari (indirectly, albeit, during negotiations over the release of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, whose abduction and captivity were masterminded by Jabari) and to kill him. In the hours following the assassination, an inside joke spread among ISA personnel suggesting that Jabari was killed as an act of revenge for the horrible shirt he made Schalit wear on the day of his release about a year ago. Joking aside, with this assassination the ISA said goodbye to one of its most challenging and dangerous targets in recent years.
Incidentally, there are those who say that despite his religious and nationalistic fanaticism, Jabari was a very pragmatic man, concerned mainly with honor. It was possible to reach understandings with him. Time will tell how his heirs will conduct themselves, but don't hold your breath. Despite Israeli hopes and despite Jabari having been a charismatic, aggressive, controlling leader with exceptionally professional military skills, his absence will not destroy Hamas. It will even be less dramatic than the effect Imad Mughniyeh's similar assassination had on Hezbollah (Mughniyeh, the commander of Hezbollah's military wing, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008).
Jabari knew that he was an Israeli target. He built a strong, organized military with experienced commanders. One of them, Mohammed Issa, has been appointed to replace him alongside former Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, who is expected to fill some of the void left by Jabari's assassination.
Alongside the challenge in replacing Jabari in the command post, Hamas now has to make some serious decisions: How to respond and how far to go in order to avenge Jabari's death. The extensive blow to Hamas' Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 rocket stockpiles, which could hit targets as far as 75 kilometers (47 miles) away, may prevent Hamas from bringing the Tel Aviv area into the battlefield (though three rockets were fired at the Tel Aviv area late Thursday, causing no damage or casualties). The intelligence on the location of these rockets was meticulously collected over the course of several years, and was presented as "operational files" which later became air force targets.
Much like the operation that launched the Second Lebanon War, in which Israel destroyed Hezbollah's reserves of long-range rockets, this, too, was no less strategically important. It was meant to limit Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's response power, even though both Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive regular long-range rocket shipments from Iran.
The deception that paid off
The Islamic Jihad attack, which ostensibly was part of the last clash with Hamas, was based on the notion that the group was less restrained than Hamas and would not hesitate to take advantage of the commotion to deal a devastating blow to Israel. Meanwhile, the IAF struck Hamas' secret drone depot in Gaza, which was supposed to serve as a strategic surprise that would humiliate Israel.
This opening shot, which was simultaneously carried out by Shin Bet (which assassinated Jabari) and by the IDF (which destroyed the rocket reserves), was wrapped in deception. Israel pretended to put its head down, giving the impression that the tough response would only come in the next round. On Tuesday, the border crossings into the Gaza Strip were opened, and on Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak set out to visit the north while Gantz oversaw a division-level military drill. Israel appeared to be resuming its regular routine and in Gaza they swallowed the bait.
Just like four years ago when it launched Operation Cast Lead, Israel managed to retain the element of surprise. Only this time, alongside the extensive infrastructure damage (which included strikes on dozens of rocket launch sites and short-range rocket depots as well), they added a painful personal blow — the assassination of Jabari.
These successes, both in terms of intelligence and operations, were the easy part. They are followed by the more complicated effort to keep the fighting as limited as possible, avoid being dragged into a ground operation in Gaza and avoid any unnecessary operational or diplomatic messes.
To achieve this Israel needs several military, diplomatic-political and public diplomacy components to fall in place: On the military front Israel needs to preserve its offensive achievements while minimizing the potential of rocket fire from Gaza. A devastating rocket attack would force Israel to retaliate and toughen its actions inside Gaza. On the diplomatic-political front Israel must establish a quick mechanism that will allow the military to complete the offensive in a short timeframe. On the public diplomacy front Israel must preserve its unity and avoid letting the confrontation in Gaza spill over into the country's political discourse. Meanwhile, Israel must make the terror organizations and residents of Gaza believe that continued violence will exact a heavy toll, which they would be wise to avoid.
A combination of these three fronts — coupled with a strong, active (Iron Dome) and passive (fortification) homefront defense and IDF who take care to avoid any strategic blow like a downed aircraft or even a hit on a tank — will allow Israel to rapidly and successfully complete this operation. A necessary condition for success is Egypt's active help. Cairo needs to take advantage of its relations with both sides of the border fence in order to broker a truce.
Officially, as was expected, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government condemned Israel and even recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations in Cairo. But under the surface, Cairo was signaling concern that the instability would spill over into Egyptian territory. The coming days will be a test to Egypt's clout in the region. At the beginning of the week Egypt was unable to effectively calm Hamas, and now it is about to face another test. Egypt's success, or failure, will be critical in shaping the character of this operation.
Deterrence in Sinai and the Golan Heights as well
Israel wants to finish Operation Pillar of Defense with Hamas and the other Gaza terrorist organizations feeling deterred and with calm in the south for an extended period of time. In order for this to happen the Israeli forces must absolutely avoid incurring extensive civilian casualties in Gaza, which could spark global criticism and further erode Israel's already shaky international legitimacy. To avoid this, the confrontation has to be short and focused.
But beyond the southern front, this operation will also impact two additional fronts: the rehabilitation of Israel's power of deterrence in Gaza will radiate onto the entire region and will serve to deter Sinai-based terrorists and groups based in the Golan Heights from attacking Israel as well. It will also create a more conducive environment to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, as imaginary as that sounds right now.
The second front, which was ostensibly abandoned when the cannons began to thunder, is the political front. A substantial, unequivocal operational success will certainly strengthen Netanyahu and his government on the eve of general elections, and it could also help Barak and his Independence Party to win some seats in the next Knesset. Their opponents will undoubtedly accuse them of using the operation to campaign for themselves, and, on the flipside, they will accuse them of being cynical and irresponsible if, God forbid, Israel should get into trouble in the Strip.
The fear of things going wrong, which naturally resides in the head of any Israeli decision maker, will serve in the coming days as a welcome restraining factor in the handling of Operation Pillar of Defense. It will allow Israel to focus on clear objectives, avoid dangerous adventures and ultimately end this operation, which began euphorically, with a realistic achievement. One that will grant the residents of southern Israel a period of time in which they can develop a "routine" lifestyle — something that they have not enjoyed in a long time. Until the next round.