Monday, November 19, 2012

Operation Pillar of Defense - Policy Brief

Five days ago, Israeli officials authorized aerial and naval strikes on Gaza in response to 12 years of persistent rocket fire from various militant groups in the Gaza Strip. An offensive policy billed as a defensive one, Operation Pillar of Defense (or Pillar of Cloud with the religious connotation) is a strong reaction to what Israel views as terrorist attacks for which Hamas is responsible. Since the first day of the operation marked by the assassination of Ahmed Jabari--Hamas' military chief--over 900 rockets (and rising) have crossed into Israeli territory at all ranges. Recent rocket strikes on or near Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and continued strikes on border cities and other population centers such as Be'er Sheva demonstrate the imperative of a cease-fire agreement. Additionally, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Israeli troops are stationed near the Israeli-Gazan border in apparent preparation for a ground operation, which Israel has stated it is ready to undertake. To this end, officials have already approved recruiting up to 70,000 reservists for the potential ground operation. Just this morning, the IDF asserted it has attacked 1,350 targets in Gaza since the beginning of the operation.

For Gaza, the operation looms as a recurring occupation in an environment the UN recently stated in a report will be unlivable by 2020. Also important is the fact that Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, has been a controversial player as it's frequently accused of having ties to Iran, dragging the region into chaos and proving unaccountable to the people that elected it to power in 2006. The unfolding events occur during a period of historic change in the Middle East while instability in nearly all of Israel's surrounding countries pose unique challenges and opportunities: sectarian clashes in Lebanon, civil war in Syria, protests in Jordan, security concerns in the Sinai and now mounting terrorist activity in Gaza. 

In the midst of all of this, Operation Pillar of Defense stands to reinforce the changing status quo in the Middle East and is the partial biproduct of Israeli political and strategic considerations. Other forces informed the authorization of the operation as well, and together the evidence paints a complex web of interconnected events that is shifting, and is some cases, deteriorating. Below are some important developments and paradigms that are shaping events on the ground and provide clarity to the situation ahead.

Poster tweeted by @IDFSpokesperson 

Context of Operation Pillar of Defense


Within the past month, rocket-fire from Gaza to Israel has escalated. The IDF and Israeli government have repeatedly emphasized this as being the major reason for launching Operation Pillar of Defense.  Israel has grown increasingly wary of the weaponry entering Gaza, citing Iranian influence. For example, it has also been widely suspected that Israel was behind an attack on a Sudanese munitions factory in October, which Israel says was going to transport weapons to militants in Gaza. Although Hamas remains the administrative authority in Gaza, it has struggled to reign in other militant factions operating there. There are a handful of militant groups operating in Gaza at the moment, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the popular resistance committees and even a few 'Jihadi Salafist' groups.[1] This power struggle may exacerbate because of the assassination of Ahmed Jabari or failure of Hamas and Israel to come to a cease-fire agreement. Another factor that complicates a cease-fire agreement and provides Israel the impetus for its operation is that fact that despite that a majority of the rockets are launched by other militant groups, Israel sees Hamas as responsible. Other concerns are the youth bulge (51% of Gaza's population under 18) and high youth unemployment in Gaza that embody the prime agents of change yet simultaneously the main audience for terrorist recruitment.

Cease-Fires and Distrust

Cease-fires in the past have been hard to forge and even harder to implement between Israel and Hamas. The high level of mutual distrust doesn't help. Recent events demonstrate this diplomatic roadblock. On the morning of Ahmed Jabari's assassination by surgical aerial strike, Jabari had been given a copy of a cease-fire in the works. While the assassination was a huge political success for Prime Minister Netanyahu and for the operation, Hamas sees the developments as Israel's insincere efforts to come to a cease-fire in favor of targeted killings and a military operation bent on Hamas' destruction. For Israel, it is dealing with a terrorist organization that has reneged on its promises before and suspects Hamas will do more of the same. The mutual distrust between Israel and Hamas remains an impasse to peace, which might require foreign involvement to overcome.

Israeli Domestic Politics

For some, Operation Pillar of Defense started off looking a lot like Israel's 2008/2009 Operation Cast Lead, although there are important differences. The most obvious parallels are that both operations are against Gaza and both occur before elections. For Prime Minister Netanyahu, public support remains very high, which will obviously help the Likud-led coalition in the early elections in January. Until the public's exuberance wears off, Operation Pillar of Defense will remain a huge PR victory for the current ruling coalition. Indeed, any move Israeli officials make could affect election results.

Shifting Regional Balance of Power

The Arab uprisings of 2011 onward unexpectedly shook the region into upheaval. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand (except for in a few Gulf states) the overthrow of their oppressive authoritarian governments. Most important to Israel were the developments in Egypt and Syria, especially with regard to the Syrian civil war agitating sectarian fault lines in Lebanon and spilling into the Golan Heights. Israel has long relied on Egypt's peace treaty with the former as a lynchpin of regional stability. Now with President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and it's Freedom and Justice Party in power, the reliability of this lynchpin is questioned. Recent flare-ups of violence in the Sinai peninsula speak to the waning stability there. In Syria, President Asad clings to power as the opposition looks for international legitimacy and arms supplies. The situation in Syria has recently spilled into the Golan Heights, prompting light Israeli retaliation. With military engagements emerging from multiple fronts, Israel will have to weigh its military operations carefully.

A second important dimension of the shifting regional balance of power focuses on the axis of Iranian influence in the region. The Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas nexus is one of Israel's top concerns, exacerbated by reports that Iran has signalled further uranium enrichment. Recent developments, however, have diffused some parts of this threat considerably. As Iran continues to enrich uranium and supply arms to Gaza, it's allies across the Middle East are fragmented. Syria is completely engulfed in civil war. In Lebanon, support for the Syrian government runs along sectarian lines, and the resulting clashes show no sign of letting up. As a political actor there, Hizballah sits in paralysis. Subsequently, Hamas has avoided taking sides in the Syrian civil war, which has hurt its reputation among old friends Syria and Iran. All of this points to an eroding bloc in the balance of power, especially now since Israel is facilitating this change via Operation Pillar of Defense.

Egypt and the United States Weigh In

The Obama administration's position on the Israeli military operation is supportive, with Congress showing it's support as well. President Obama's biggest concern is the civilian death toll, especially in Gaza. Rising civilian casualties in Gaza not only bring the conduct of the IDF into question but also threatens America's image in the Middle East depending on how the U.S. responds to the violence. President Obama will most likely make it his first priority to both support Israel's right to self-defense yet also project concern for the Palestinians to the governments in the region. As evidenced from President Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, his administration is looking to reposition itself in the Middle East and forge new ties to the region. In this sense, President Obama should actively engage the current situation in Gaza in order to exemplify his mission, and the Middle East needs strong American involvement at a time like this.

Egypt's interest in the conflict is hardly surprising given its geographic, historic and ideological connections to Gaza and Hamas, and it's peace agreement with Israel. In addition, Egypt has added incentive to help broker a cease-fire agreement given the deteriorating security conditions in the Sinai. A diplomatic achievement by President Morsi would also shore up support at home. Thus for all of these reasons, Egypt might prove to be an essential player in the cease-fire negotiations and implementation.

A Final Note

The day after Operation Pillar of Defense began, Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated 'Palestine Independence Day,' which commemorates the Palestinian National Council's proclamation of an 'independent Palestinian state' on that day in 1988. Right now at the UN General Assembly, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is pressing for UN 'non-member state' status for Palestine, a turn of events that Israeli officials considered obstructing. It is curious that Operation Pillar of Defense was launched during a symbolic and important time for the Palestinian people. And as evidenced above, Israel's decision to retaliate comes during a multidimensional juncture and is, therefore, at least partially informed by national, regional and global implications. As shown through the above analysis, the statement "Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense is in response to terrorist attacks and reflect Israel's right to defend itself" becomes a misleading, simplistic diagnosis for a complex reality.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the recent conflict is not the current fluid situation on the ground but the question of the aftermath: who or what will emerge from the rubble in Gaza? In many ways, Hamas poses a unique challenge to Israel, but it may be the least of Israel's problems in Gaza.


[1] Khaled Hroub, "Salafi Formations in Palestine and the Limits of a De-Palestinised Milieu,"Holy Land Studies 7, no. 2 (2008), 164

A special thanks to my sister, Erin, who is currently in medical school in Be'er Sheva, for her running commentary on the recent developments and insights. I would also like to thank her boyfriend Nevo and his family for taking care of her during this unstable time. Our thoughts and prayers are with you! Stay safe!

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