The “Operation Pillar of Defense” was an eight-day Israel Defense Forces (IDF) military operation in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, officially launched on November 14, 2012, with the killing of Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas. It was one of the cycling periods of violence escalation that characterize the political link between Israel and the other political entities in Gaza. The equilibrium that follows one of these periods is not stable and it runs until the violence escalates again. Due to the American and Egyptian mediation the political parts involved in the 2012 conflict reached a series of understandings to stop the fights. A ceasefire was agreed only by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) but not by the small Salafist terrorist groups operating in Gaza.[1] However, these understandings do not meet the demands of either side on a number of levels. Each side fears the lack of guarantees that the respective obligations will be implemented.[2]

The agreements were:

    1. Israel shall stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals.
    2. All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks, and all attacks along the border.
    3. Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.
    4. Other matters as may be requested shall be addressed.
  1. Implementation Mechanism:
    1. Setting up the zero hour for the Ceasefire Understanding to enter into effect.
    2. Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon.
    3. Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. In case of any observations, Egypt – as the sponsor of this understanding – shall be informed to follow up.[3]

Looking to the operational strategies, we can note that during “Pillar of Defense” and the previous “Cast Lead”, Hamas pushed towards a desired recognition of legitimacy of his reputed institution to the use of political violence: the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. This branch of Hamas did not enjoy any legitimacy because of their terrorist use of violence. The attempt failed, however, because the conventional clash with the IDF wasn’t able to generate the hoped results. The reason of this failing was a poor performance in doing complex military operations due to an internal organizational weakness and an ineffective leadership compared to the extreme effectiveness of the IDF. As result of the failed conventional confrontation with the IDF, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades have been pushed back again into a pure terrorist and illegitimate way to fight. Thus risking to undermine the monopoly of legitimate political violence by Hamas itself inside the Gaza Strip and allowing new players to make their way; for example, the PIJ and the ever growing number of Salafist jihadist cells, as demonstrated by the recent events.[4]

Since the end of the 2012 conflict the International context has changed. The Arab springs and the counter-revolutions that followed have brought wars and further instability among the Middle East. Some emblematic examples are Egypt, a sectarian Libya, a civil war in Syria, an Iraq threatened by ISIS caliphate and a weakened Jordanian State. This Middle East trend has influenced the Palestinian context with strategic consequences: both Palestinian political leaderships are weaker than ever. As result Hamas has lost its political and maybe military control over hundreds of small Salafist jihadist groups and lone wolves. Small entities that are able to influence the political agenda of bigger actors, included Israel.[5]

In the previous two operations, it was possible to view Gaza as a state controlled by Hamas, but in this case the “Operation Protective Edge” started after Hamas ostensibly relinquished responsibility for Gaza and formally “gave the keys” to Abu Mazen.[6]

Hamas is at an exceptionally weak point of its life, resulting mainly from the change of regime in Egypt. In particular as a result of this turnover, the organization has lost the ability to manage life in Gaza in a manner similar to the past. The cutoff in the flow of essential resources has boosted unemployment, which now exceeds 40%. Hamas has begun to feel the loss of public support in the Gaza Strip and has had, as previously seen, difficulty controlling the area. This was also an important factor in the agreement by the organization’s leadership to establish a Palestinian national unity government.[7]

On the opposite front, if we take in consideration the basic State obligation to protect its citizens, and we add it into Israel’s national security concept based on the three pillars of deterrence, early warning and decision, we can easily see how the situation was full of the permissive factors. Factors, among which we can also include that the contested territory where the fights goes on is considered sacred by both adversaries, able to escalate the level of violence of the conflict between Israel and the galaxy of Palestinian political entities.[8]

But it wasn’t enough to start another major conflict: during the last months a series of precipitant factors have triggered the situation into the current violence spread.

Three of them were actions directed to the opposite political side. But if we argue that those cycling conflicts can be seen as “ritual wars”: in the sense underlined by anthropologists like William Robertson-Smith, Bronislaw Malinowski and Emile Durkheim, of ritual able to re-build and re-create the world in which the socio-politics identity operates, we can see how dramatically other two precipitant factors have enabled both sides to polarize and re-define “the other” in an extremely negative way.[9] I’m referring to the horrific killings of three Israelis youth and a young Palestinian boy.

Let’s try to analyze better the consequences of all of these actions. On Thursday evening, June 12, 2014, three teenage Israeli youths were abducted in the Hebron area. The Israeli Security Forces began a searching operation named “Brother’s Keeper” on the following morning, June 13, 2014.[10] Up to 20,000 IDF security officers were deployed in the operation. The city of Hebron was the primary site of the military sweep. Curfews, house-by-house searches and arrests have become the stuff of daily life for the Palestinian population in the area. It was clear that the military action also served to weaken and discredit Hamas. In particular under target was the organization’s social and charity infrastructure in the West Bank.

“Our activities go further than just finding Eyal, Gilad and Naftali – toward taking aim at Hamas’ terrorist and civil structures”, the army leadership said.[11]

IDF spokesman Peter Lerner readily stated that the operation not only aims to resolve the kidnapping, but also debilitates Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions.[12]

A description of the tactics used in the operation was given to the Jerusalem Post by Rami Igra, former MIA division head for the Mossad. “[…] The IDF is using force to ‘rock the boat’ in the West Bank to yield information by arresting and questioning Hamas leaders”. The process involves “making life difficult” for Palestinians in the search area. The Israeli government is telling the Palestinian population: “What you have done is outside the rules, so now we are going to make your life more difficult […] to make it clear that what happened is not acceptable”.[13]

Particularly controversial was a cooperation on security matters between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli armed forces. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after having made a clear statement condemning the kidnapping of the three young Israelis, instructed his security forces to help with the search for the missing students, but this action brought him heavy criticism from Hamas.[14]

So it seems that the operation “Brother’s Keeper” had only further weakened the PA and reduced any remaining legitimacy it had. Much of the discontent at protests and demonstrations during the second half of June have been targeted at the PA itself, specifically at the cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces. The situation has created a dynamic in which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have lost credibility, while emboldening the image of Hamas. The operation “Brother’s Keeper” has not returned the missing teens, nor has it contributed at all to maintaining security and safety. Instead, it culminated with a rise of skirmishes between Israelis and Palestinians with dead and wounded.[15]

After 18 days of intensive searches carried out by Israeli security forces and civilian volunteers, in the early evening of June 30, 2014, the bodies of the three Israeli youth were found. As result a strong anti-Palestinian incitement spread throughout some social networks. After the burial of the three boys the IDF announced that the mission was essentially completed. During the operation 422 were arrested, 335 of them Hamas members, 12 of them were organization leaders. It’s important to underline that 56 of the arrested were previously released during the Shalid deal. By doing the operation “Brother’s Keeper” the IDF believed to have set an important blow to Hamas’ political, military and civil infrastructure in Judea and Samaria.

In the meantime, the tensions in the Gaza front were constantly mounting.[16]

During the operation the terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip escalated their rocket fire into the western Negev: 52 rockets hits have been identified since the beginning of the operation. It’s important to underline that most of the rockets were fired by rogue terrorist organizations or minor terrorist groups. As it was in the case of Sderot on June 28, 2014, when the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) claimed responsibility. Only in one instance, on June 30, 2014, Hamas operatives were apparently involved.

In response to the rocket fire, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft carried out a large number of strikes against terrorist operatives and by attacking more than 60 terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip. On the afternoon of June 27, 2014 IAF aircraft struck two senior PRC figures. On June 29, 2014, IAF aircraft struck a terrorist squad making final preparations to fire rockets into Israeli territory. The Palestinian media reported the death of one Hamas terrorist operative from the Izz al-Din al- Qassam Brigades.

On the evening of June 30 the Security Cabinet met to discuss responses. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that Hamas was responsible and Hamas would pay.[17]

Since the beginning of “Brother’s Keeper”, the Prime Minister has had no doubt about Hamas responsibility. It’s interesting to look again to another couple of phrases stated by Igra in the interview with The Jerusalem Post on June 16, 2014: “There is no question in my mind that Hamas will lead the situation, because at the end of the day no other organization could” and “Most abductions are not made by big [Palestinian terrorist] organizations, but by small, extreme Islamic fragment groups who attempt to sell or move captives to a larger Palestinian entity”.[18]

Senior Hamas figures, who since the abduction had been careful not to claim responsibility, continue to claim that the event is an “Israeli invention” and that they are prepared to any Israeli response: Ismail Haniya, for example said Hamas was not frightened by Netanyahu’s threats and would fight against any Israeli attempt to harm Palestinians. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said on June 30, 2014, that no organization had claimed responsibility for the abduction. Israel’s threats, he said, did not frighten the Palestinians and the Palestinians could defend themselves. He added that Hamas did not want a confrontation with Israel but that one had been forced upon it and Israel had to be prepared to pay a higher price than previously. “If he [Netanyahu] starts a war against Gaza the gates of hell will open for him”. Husam Badran said the Israeli “story” was an indication of political, security and military tension in Israel. He said that Hamas took Israel’s threats seriously, but the Palestinian “resistance” could stop Israel.[19]

Based on the previous premises, Hamas has seen fighting as the least problematic option. But under this clime of ever growing tension and escalation another event had definitely polarized the situation. On July 2, 2014 a young Palestinian boy was burned to death, the body was found in the woods in west Jerusalem. Four days later Israeli police arrested six Israeli, aged 16 to 22: the murderer of the young Palestinian acted in a premeditated way. A strong anti-Israel incitement follows the murder throughout the Palestinian media and the rocket launches increased more and more. Between July 2 and July 7, 2014, approximately 230 rocket hits were identified in Israeli territory, as well as dozens of mortar shell hits. Most of the rocket fire targeted the towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, as well as the city of Sderot, which had been singled out as focal target during this stage of the escalation.

In particular, on July 5, 2014 one rocket was fired at Beersheba, Israel’s largest southern city, on the first time it had been attacked since the previous conflict. For the first time since the “Operation Pillar of Defense”, Hamas has participated in andclaimed responsibility for rocket fire.

In the wake of the deterioration of security in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources reported that senior Hamas leaders had gone underground, fearing they would be attacked by Israel. Abu Obeida, who is a spokesman for Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, held a press conference where he said that the campaign with Israel was “open”.

The rocket fire, increased significantly after July 7, IAF aircraft attacked a Hamas tunnel used for terrorist purposes. On July 7, 2014, 120 rocket hits were identified in Israeli territory, 60 of them during the evening. The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military-terrorist wing, planned to use the tunnel to carry out an attack inside Israel. Six Hamas terrorist operatives who were in the tunnel at the time of the attack were killed. In response of the attack Hamas threatened revenge and the rocket fire attacking Israel increased on July 8.

As a result of the continuous massive rocket fire attacking Israel’s south, on July 7, 2014, the Security Cabinet voted to sanction the “Operation Protective Edge”.[20]

 

MICHELE TAUFER

Master of Arts in International Politics and Diplomacy (University of Padua)

 

 


[1] Pietro Batacchi, La guerra (ri)torna a Gaza, Rivista Italiana Difesa, N. 2, pp.26-33, Chiavari, Giornalistica Riviera Soc. Coop., Febbraio 2013.

[2] Udi Dekel, Israel-Hamas: Conditions for a Stable Ceasefire, INSS Insight No. 575, July17, 2014.

[6] Amos Yadlin, Operation Protective Edge: The Goals, and the Strategy to Achieve Them, INSS Insight No. 571, July 9, 2014.

[7] Yonathan Lerner, Operation Protective Edge: Possible Scenarios for What Lies Ahead, INSS Insight No. 572, July 14, 2014.

[8] Amos Yadlin, Operation Protective Edge: The Goals, and the Strategy to Achieve Them, INSS Insight No. 571, July 9, 2014.