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The delicate dance of mutual deterrence

Five years after “Operation Protective Edge,” the current assessment in Israel is that Hamas is deterred. Regardless, the next round of fighting is almost inevitable, and won’t resemble its predecessors.

Israeli security forces patrol the Israel-Gaza border on July 5, 2019. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Israeli security forces patrol the Israel-Gaza border on July 5, 2019. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

The current Israeli assessment that Hamas is deterred from engaging in broad military conflict has been reinforced in recent weeks. Although Hamas has orchestrated the cross-border arson campaign and violent border protests, it has also sought to temper tensions out of concern the situation could spiral out of control.

The (temporary) understandings mediated by Egypt and the United Nation’s special envoy to the region are indeed bearing the desired fruit: The past week was among the quietest in months along the Gaza frontier, with nearly zero incendiary balloons and just one relatively calm border demonstration (6,900 participants and only a handful of explosive devices) on Friday.

This quiet is an illusion—if money and goods aren’t allowed to enter Gaza, things will quickly revert to fire and violence—but it does indicate that, five years on from Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” Hamas is strongly deterred. Were it not deterred it would have launched another military campaign a long time ago to extricate itself from Gaza’s civic and economic distress. It could have sparked another war, for example, via a tunnel attack, which would have also given it a much desired public relations coup.

Hamas refrains from doing so because it knows it is losing assets with every passing day. Since “Protective Edge,” the Israel Defense Forces has detected and destroyed 17 infiltration tunnels.

Most significantly, though, the army has already completed 25 miles of the 42-mile underground barrier it is building along the border. Meanwhile, six miles of the new surface fence have been completed, and the underwater sea barrier is already finished. The IDF intends to complete the entire barrier by the end of 2019, which is supposed to completely eliminate the tunnel threat from Gaza.

This deterrence, however, isn’t just a one-way street; it also affects Israel. From the moment violence from Gaza erupted anew in late March 2018, Israel has stringently avoided steps that could lead to a military imbroglio in the coastal enclave. It has restricted itself to terrorist targets, taken pains to avoid harming civilians and has repeatedly exhibited a willingness to retaliate in moderation to the bevy of provocations perpetrated by Gaza’s terrorist groups, which in previous periods would have earned a far more severe Israeli response.

This primarily stems from the understanding among the country’s political and military leadership that any broad campaign in Gaza—the cost in lives and money notwithstanding—will end, in the best-case scenario, at the current starting point. In the worst-case scenario, things will end in a much worse situation, with Israel having to rule (and fund and care for) Gaza and its people.

Israel, therefore, prefers to reach an arrangement with Hamas. It’s doubtful one can be reached in the coming months. Among other things, that’s because of the upcoming election in Israel, which intrinsically hardens positions and reduces the chances for compromise, but also because of the disagreements over core issues—from money and energy sources to the bodies of IDF soldiers being held by Hamas. Thus, the forthcoming period, despite the state of mutual deterrence, will remain tense and require the IDF to maintain a high level of readiness in case of an escalation.

It’s clear to both sides that the next round of fighting won’t resemble previous ones. Israel doesn’t want a prolonged, frustrating war that culminates in public resentment and anger. It will probably start any campaign by pulverizing the enemy’s assets and personnel.

Hamas, too, has shown it has learned the lessons of 2014. The large number of rockets (490) it fired at Israel within a short time frame in May, which claimed the lives of four Israelis, indicates that its plan is also to focus maximum firepower in the hope of attaining maximum diplomatic points in the shortest time possible.

To enter the next round of fighting with the upper hand, Israel has carried out a variety of operations, clandestine and public. The failed intelligence-gathering operation in Khan Yunis last November was just one example of Israel’s covert efforts.

The purpose of these efforts is to stay at least a step ahead of the enemy and help the country’s leaders make the most informed decisions possible, even if those decisions aren’t immediately popular in the eyes of the public.

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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