Tel Aviv and Gaza are at war. It is perhaps difficult to compare the realities of the two cities, but regardless, war it is. True, explosions are heard in Gaza every few minutes, and in some parts of southern Israel as well, while in Tel Aviv such sounds have been heard only twice during the last forty-eight hours. However, the usual feeling of security and complacency in “the Israeli city that never stops” is not as it was only yesterday.
The first sirens heard on Thursday evening caught most Tel Aviv residents by surprise. Since 1991 and the days of Operation Desert Storm, there have been no real sirens heard here. The next day, it happened again. On Friday afternoon, during Tel Aviv’s “café and shopping time,” alarms were heard after two missiles were fired at the city from Gaza. Both ended up exploding in open areas. One consolation for the city’s residents is that other Israelis’ perceptions of them, as living in a “disconnected bubble” in the “state of Tel Aviv,” are no longer relevant. Tel Aviv has officially joined the front.
On Tuesday evening, roughly nineteen hours before the gray Kia belonging to Ahmed Al-Jabari, the commander of Hamas’ military wing, was attacked in central Gaza City, criticism of Netanyahu’s government over indifference to the plight of southern Israel’s residents could still be heard.
It had been a relatively quiet day, as “only” four missiles fired from the Sinai Peninsula landed in Israel, and “only” a few rockets from Gaza landed in open fields in Israeli territory. A quiet day indeed, and it seemed as if the two sides, Israel and Hamas, were heading towards yet another temporary ceasefire agreement.
The “victory,” if it could be called that, in this round would be awarded to Hamas. It seemed that Israel would once again exercise restraint in the wake of an attack that injured four soldiers on Saturday, and incessant rocket fire from Gaza. It seemed that Netanyahu’s government preferred relative quiet over being dragged into a dangerous military excursion on the eve of elections.
In an interview on Israel’s Channel 10, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs harshly criticized Netanyahu’s government over its disregard for those living in the south of the country. His remarks included “a beginner’s guide for the aspiring Hamas militant,” explaining how one could fire rockets, without fear of any Israeli response, due largely to that disregard.
The analyst claimed that the Israeli government chose to ignore the suffering of the people in the south, partly because that sector of the population is comprised largely of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, as well as Jews of Middle Eastern origin.
The next day, a few minutes before 4 P.M., when word got out of the targeted killing of Al-Jabari, it became clear just how wrong that analyst was. Not only did the Israeli government choose to respond to the recent escalation, but the response was exceptionally potent, testifying to Netanyahu’s willingness to put his political future on the line in an attempt to restore Israel’s policy of deterrence against Hamas in Gaza.
I was that mistaken analyst, by the way. Mea culpa.
Many voices have been heard in Israel over the last few days claiming that the decision to launch an operation in Gaza is part of Netanyahu’s reëlection campaign. These notions are illogical. As polls show his chances to be between good and excellent, why would Netanyahu feel that he needed a military operation—and one with such an unclear end, at that—to improve his chances? The operation is actually a gamble for the Israeli Prime Minister. If he manages to force Hamas to agree to stop shooting, and to put an end to all rocket firing carried out by smaller organizations in Gaza (primarily those associated with Al Qaeda), it would be a great achievement for Netanyahu—one that would likely guarantee his win in the upcoming election.
On the other hand, if missiles continue to fall on Israel, and more specifically on Tel Aviv, as they did on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces will be dragged into a long, complicated ground operation, which would lead to both Palestinian and I.D.F. casualties. The political ramifications of such a move are quite clear: support for Netanyahu would weaken, and the distance between himself, his rival, Labor Party chairperson Shelly Yachimovich, and his potential rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, would get smaller and smaller. Defeat for Netanyahu in the upcoming election would not be an impossibility following a failed military operation.
In the meantime, it must be said that during the first forty-eight hours of this operation, known as Pillar of Defense, the I.D.F.’s success is quite impressive. The Israelis caught both Hamas’ leadership and the Palestinian public completely by surprise. Just after Al-Jabari’s car was hit, a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza, who happened to be at the scene, called me. It was still unclear just who the passengers in the car were, though he told me that rumors were circulating that it was the commander of Hamas’ military wing. “That doesn’t seem logical to me,” he told me. “What do you think?”
It did, in fact, sound rather unreal at the time—but a quick clarification with the Israeli side revealed that this time, the decision-makers had opted to throw down the gauntlet. Killing Al-Jabari is much more than the assassination of yet another Hamas leader. Because of his extreme importance within the organization, and particularly its military wing, his death is casus belli: cause for war. Al-Jabari was the chief negotiator in the deal that released the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in October, 2011, who had been held in captivity since June, 2006. That deal secured the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners—an unprecedented achievement for a terror organization. Despite the heavy blow, and the status Al-Jabari held within the organization, Hamas was quick in naming Marwan Issa as his successor on Thursday.
The other Israeli achievement, perhaps even of greater significance, was the blow dealt to Hamas’ stockpiles of long-range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles. Over the last few years, Israeli, Arab, and western media outlets have released many reports regarding Hamas’ ability to hit Tel Aviv with these missiles. The working assumption for many years in Israel was that Hamas would make use of them only in the event of a dramatic escalation, and the I.D.F. knew that killing Al-Jabari was exactly the kind of event that could lead to their being fired.
Thus, alongside the hit on Al-Jabari, Israel carried out a comprehensive aerial strike on more than fifteen different sites where Hamas was known to store the missiles. Contrary to the headline in the New York Times on Thursday, it was not a “ferocious assault,” but rather a meticulously planned attack, based on stunningly detailed intelligence information, that resulted in a minimum of civilian casualties and the destruction of most of Hamas’ missile stockpiles. An hour after the operation began, Hamas found itself without its most admired senior commander and with limited capability to hit central Israel.
The Israeli intelligence establishment is reluctant to begin celebrating, however. Again and again, Israelis are warned that Hamas still has the “residual capacity”—meaning leftover long-range missiles—needed to hit the Tel Aviv area. Regardless, the destruction of over ninety per cent of those missiles is an exceptional achievement for Israeli intelligence, and one can only imagine how much work went into it.
For years, advanced satellite technology was used, and unmanned drones followed the smuggling of weapons through the tunnels in southern Gaza (Rafah), up until they reached storage sites. Simultaneously, intelligence must have been collected and delivered by I.D.F. special-forces units. Information was received from human sources as well: agents working for Israel on the ground in Gaza to follow the course of the Fajr missiles. In the end, all of this information was pieced together into a giant intelligence puzzle for a single operation that took place between four and five o’clock on Wednesday afternoon.
Over the next few days, and perhaps weeks, Hamas will try to discern the origins of its mistakes. The organization, which rules in Gaza, held the assumption, which was proved to be utterly incorrect, that Israel would not launch a military operation during an election season. Furthermore, over the last few months, Hamas has allowed other organizations in Gaza to “blow off some steam” and fire rockets into Israel time and again, week after week.
Until about six months ago, Hamas sought to limit the activities of other Palestinian organizations in Gaza, and prevent them from launching rockets. But then it grew complacent, apparently due to a false assumption about the election, and even openly joined other organizations in firing on Israel. The fact that Al-Jabari would have travelled almost out in the open throughout Gaza, without bodyguards, proves that senior Hamas militants felt nearly immune from Israeli attack. In the end, Hamas allowed itself to be dragged by smaller organizations, like those that identify with Al Qaeda, into a dangerous conflict with Israel, the end of which is still not in sight.
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