Israel may have registered a long list of successes so far in “Operation Breaking Dawn,” but the main challenge still lies ahead: To end the fighting as soon as possible without Hamas joining in, and to create an extended period of deterrence vis-à-vis Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
As always, the opening move has a great impact on the rest of the game. Israel prepared its opening move for several days, waiting for the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to provide precision intelligence that would enable the targeted killing of the leader of PIJ in the northern Gaza Strip, Taysar Jaabari—the dominant figure in the organization’s military wing and the person responsible for the recent escalation. During this waiting period, the IDF tightened defenses around the Gaza Strip and beyond by positioning Iron Dome batteries in several locations, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and airing operational plans for the possibility of narrow or broad escalation.
These preparations came at a cost in public opinion and criticism of the political and security leadership. However, possessing a view of the entire board, the leadership chose to pay that cost; quite a few politicians and journalists will now have to eat their hats. The same elements that attacked Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz for holding back on taking action in Gaza because of politics and electioneering were quick off the mark to attack them for operating in Gaza for the same reasons—politics and electioneering.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu did the right thing when he announced that he would attend a private security briefing by the prime minister today. Had he done so earlier, perhaps he could have spared some of his supporters embarrassment for publishing criticism of the government, which is of course legitimate and welcome but should preferably be based on reality.
In the present case, the criticism was far from reality: The extended wait before commencing the operation was not defeatism or weakness but the IDF waiting for the operational opportunity that would enable Israel to get the operation underway with an ace in its hands, just as it did in 2012 at the beginning of “Operation Pillar of Defense” when it assassinated the military leader of Hamas Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, and in 2019, when it assassinated PIJ military leader Baha Abu al-Ata at the beginning of “Operation Black Belt.”
Then, as today, the main aim of the operation was to hit Islamic Jihad while leaving Hamas out of the conflict. This is a complicated challenge because Hamas faces a dilemma: On the one hand, it is a jihadi organization and the sovereign in the Gaza Strip, committed to its defense; on the other hand, it has no desire to be thrown into an escalation and to pay the military and civil civilian prices inherent in joining the conflict just because somebody in PIJ went crazy.
Over the weekend, Israel sent messages to Hamas that it would not act against it if the organization stayed out of the fighting. It also implored Hamas to rein in PIJ, promising that as soon as the fighting was over, it will lift the restrictions on the Gaza Strip, that Palestinian workers would again be allowed to exit the strip to work in Israel and that the traffic of goods into Gaza would resume. Israel hopes this carrot, offered via the Egyptians, will suffice to keep Hamas out of the fighting. However, the longer the fighting goes on, the more non-combatants are hurt, the greater the pressure will be in the internal Palestinian arena for Hamas to act.
For this reason, Israel wants to end the fighting as soon as possible. It is doubtful that PIJ has similar interests, despite the severe blows it has already taken, and it is reasonable to assume that it will look for some kind of achievement, which for the moment it has failed to make thanks to the tight defenses deployed by the IDF and the discipline showed by civilians on the home front. However, as the hits on the organization’s members increase—together with the sweeping arrests carried out over the weekend in Judea and Samaria—PIJ will be forced to recalculate, after also failing to impose a new equation of deterrence creating a linkage between arrests in Judea and Samaria and threats from Gaza.
It’s still too early to sum up the current round of fighting. Hamas isn’t the only party that could change the picture. Events in other arenas could also do so. Judea and Samaria is quiet for the moment and so are the northern arena and mixed Jewish-Arab towns. But today all eyes will be on Jerusalem, where Jews, among them Jewish Knesset members, will be going up en masse to the Temple Mount for Tisha B’Av prayers. The recommendation of the security establishment to the political level (which approved it) is not to limit or restrict access to the Temple Mount, to make it clear that Israel is the sovereign and will not be dictated to from Gaza. On the other hand, those going up to the Mount would do well to refrain from unnecessary provocations that could escalate the situation.
If events in Jerusalem today pass peacefully, and if there are no surprising developments in the fighting in Gaza, the pressure on PIJ to cease fire will increase. In any event, the quality of its rocket launches from Gaza is low and it seems that its reserve of rockets has dwindled. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that there will be those in the organization who seek to cut their losses. These are decisions that will be taken within PIJ, not in Iran, which, contrary to various publications, is not involved in the current escalation.
Israel is operating using every means possible—military, diplomatic and cognitive—to create pressure on Islamic Jihad to reach this conclusion. In the meantime, from the surprising and successful opening move, the smooth operations by the security forces (Shin Bet in gathering intelligence and the IDF executing operations on the ground), synchronization between the security forces and the political echelon and the impressive functioning of the civilian authorities on the home front, the cards are in Israel’s favor. The challenge now is to keep things that way and avoid errors until the final whistle.
Yoav Limor is a veteran journalist and defense analyst.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.