Israel’s decision to launch Operation Shield and Arrow was the result of a predicament leaving it with no choice. The incessant rampant violence pursued by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which reached a peak last week following the midday barrage of rockets launched into the town of Sderot, which borders the Gaza Strip, combined with the severe erosion of deterrence on all fronts, left Israel no choice but to go back to basics.
The initial opening phase of the operation was extremely successful. The PIJ was completely taken by surprise, both in terms of the timing and the intensity of the opening shot. The targeting of the three senior terrorist commanders in their homes, while they slept, has knocked PIJ off balance. It also served as a reminder to other senior terrorists elsewhere that their home is not their castle, and that wherever they choose to hide they will not be immune from retribution. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has been strutting around like a peacock for the last few months, could well provide first-hand testimony to that effect.
Such an operation requires precise synchronization between high-caliber (human and technological) intelligence and surgical operational capabilities. Israel is probably the global leader in these two specific fields and particularly in converting them into a whole that is larger than the sum of all its parts. The targeting activity in the Gaza Strip required not only precise information as to where each of these senior figures was sleeping, down to the nitty-gritty details of the specific room in the house and who was there beside the individual, but it was also necessary to time the takeoff of the aircraft and the strikes down to a tee so that the three of them would be hit simultaneously and unable to get away.
The fact that the strike was implemented without any hitches is the result of the successful completion of this prior operational intelligence puzzle, a considerable part of which was dedicated to minimizing the possibility of harming non-combatants. The green light for the strike was actually given last Tuesday (immediately after the rocket fire on Sderot), but was repeatedly postponed due to concern over the potential harm to a large number of civilians.
Israel was highly motivated to avoid such a scenario, not only from the humanitarian aspect but also because such collateral damage would surely drag Hamas into the fray. The decision to finally launch the strike yesterday, in any event, was made because it was clear that the senior PIJ commanders taken out had the constant potential to take action and ignite a much broader escalation during which even more innocent bystanders on both sides would be hurt.
The PIJ will try to challenge Israel
Having said that, it is safe to assume that the Hamas declaration that it would take part in the response derives from the fact that civilians were killed in the airstrike, but also from internal Palestinian and Gazan solidarity. However, it is believed that Hamas does not seek to become sucked into a large-scale escalation that will most probably lead to a severe pounding of the terrorist organization, along with heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip as a whole. Thus, they will probably seek to take symbolic action, perhaps by firing only into the Israeli Gaza envelope communities.
PIJ, on the other hand, will clearly seek to adopt a much tougher approach in its effort to respond. The working assumption is that it will attempt to challenge Israel in every way possible, including by firing rockets into the more densely-populated areas of central Israel. PIJ is well aware that the combination of strong discipline among the Israeli public and the Iron Dome missile defense system’s impressively high interception rate (more than 90% in recent rounds of violence) significantly limit their chances of exacting a price. So, since yesterday, they have been searching for a more “reliable and guaranteed” response in the form of an anti-tank or sniping attack. This is the reason why, following the airstrike, the IDF closed all the roads in the area that are visible from the Gaza Strip. It would be reasonable, however, to ask for the immediate completion of the engineering project undertaken by Israel to enable the residents of the Gaza envelope communities to travel safely in that area as a whole, including during hostilities.
The PIJ’s degree of success in causing damage to Israel will have a major impact on how the situation develops. If it fails to do so while the Israeli Air Force is expected to engage in an intensive series of strikes in the Gaza Strip in order to exact additional prices from PIJ, we can expect a resulting surge in pressure on Hamas from local Gazans to restore calm and enable a return to routine (including work in Israel).
But if the PIJ does accumulate a number of successes—and certainly if Hamas is forced to enter the fray and thus broaden the extent of the action—Israel might then be dragged into an unwanted escalation, including the option of a multi-theater campaign involving violence both in northern Israel and in the heart of Israel’s mixed-population cities.
Though the defense establishment’s assessment of such a scenario believes it to be unlikely, based on a working assumption adopting a worst-case scenario, steps are being taken to prepare for it. The defense establishment is beefing up both the relevant operational and intelligence units in the north of the country. The Israel Police is also being required to make special preparations, which means not only dealing with threats and the deployment of forces, but first and foremost engaging in talks with the relevant mayors and heads of communities in the mixed cities in order to ensure calm.
However, even before the current escalation got underway, it was clear to all and sundry that once the smoke has settled and calm has been restored, no material change will have been effected in Israel’s relations with the Gaza Strip. The politicians who began to brag yesterday that they were the ones who had led to a change of policy were born after Israel began to target its enemies and are unable to count or acknowledge the number of terrorist leaders that have been eliminated in recent decades in Gaza.
For those who may have forgotten: Only nine months ago, during Operation Breaking Dawn, Israel succeeded in destroying the PIJ leadership in the Gaza Strip, showing that leading the PIJ may be one of the shortest-lived jobs available. Nonetheless, the deterrence generated from military targeting activity is somewhat limited. This is definitely the case while, behind the scenes, Iran is constantly pushing (both by incitement and funding) to systematically challenge Israel. This is not just a question of rocket fire. Two of the senior terrorists killed were heavily involved in staging attacks in Judea & Samaria via the terrorist cells that they ran there, providing them with funding and arms from the “perceived safety” of their home in the Gaza Strip.
Israel now requires nerves of steel and strong discipline among its civilian population, coupled with a well-oiled diplomatic mechanism and a strong public diplomacy effort to establish regional and international legitimacy for continued action if required. Its leaders would also do well to keep their public declarations to a minimum and let actions speak louder than words.
Now is the time for the IDF and the Israel Security Agency to act rather than those politicians whose primary aim is to “hog the limelight” as they tend to shoot their mouths off in the constant search for “likes.” It is imperative to understand that the fight against terrorism is not a contest that can be won by a knockout, but rather on points and over time. It requires much more than a successful targeting operation to bring about a fundamental change of the underlying state of affairs both in the Gaza Strip and Sderot.
Yoav Limor is a veteran journalist and defense analyst.
Originally published by Israel Hayom.