A Strike with Seven Unknown Variables

The most pressing concern for the Israeli defense establishment this past week was how to prevent the situation in the south, and possibly in other sectors as well, from escalating – following the blasting of an Islamic Jihad attack tunnel. Amir Rapaport's weekly column

Islamic Jihad masked gunmen attend the funeral of their comrades who died following the detonation of a militant tunnel on Monday (Photo: AP)

It happened in July 2014: in the middle of the hunt for the abductors of the three youngsters from Gush-Etzion, the IDF bombed a Hamas attack tunnel near Kerem-Shalom. Following a series of misunderstandings between the parties, that strike evolved into Operation Protective Edge in which none of the parties had been interested. The operation lasted not less than 51 days.

Against the background of the bitter memories of Operation Protective Edge, the most pressing concern for the Israeli defense establishment this past week was how to prevent the situation in the south, and possibly in other sectors as well, from escalating – pursuant to the blasting of an Islamic Jihad attack tunnel near Kibbutz Kissufim last Sunday. There is no way to guarantee that the IDF strike will remain unanswered, with no response from the other side, as many different players are involved in this "game" – from Iran through Lebanon to the Gaza Strip. Some of these players have a significant interest in setting the area ablaze, among other things – against the background of the recent events in Syria and the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, whose first (and thus far only) phase came into effect this week. For some comments on the complexity of the situation, read on.

Firstly, let's address the strike itself: it was executed in the manner of a typical military operation as far as the IDF Southern Command was concerned, in the context of the Israeli strategy of taking initiated measures to prevent Israel's enemies in all of the various sectors from gaining strength, including a long list of strike operations.

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis announced promptly that the actual blast took place inside Israeli territory, and that the operation was a defensive move initiated in response to a violation of Israel's sovereignty. The initiated blasting was intended to cut off the tunnel and render it unusable. The tunnel did not constitute a threat. Most of the casualties were killed during the rescue operations staged by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The causes of death were smoke and dust. According to him, the IDF had not used any measures other than standard, conventional weapons.

"We did not pump anything into the tunnel. Immediately following the blast, the terrorists at the other end rushed to the area of the blast. There was no attempt to target the senior terrorists. They died inside the Gaza Strip. The men killed included members of Hamas as well as members of Islamic Jihad. As we see it, Jihad had been authorized by Hamas to excavate the tunnel. Any offensive action staged in response to the defensive action we have taken will be met in the usual manner," said BG Manelis.

Later this week, a senior IDF officer added that Islamic Jihad acknowledges and accepts the authority of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but this was the first time an Islamic Jihad tunnel penetrated into Israeli territory. According to him, the technology that spotted the tunnel is a development capable of spotting a tunnel while providing an accurate map reference. "This incident has not ended yet. We must remain alert and have both feet firmly on the ground. It is a major achievement for the IDF, the Ministry of Defense and the Israeli defense industries, which developed a technological capability that had not been available during Operation Protective Edge as a result of the maturation of potential capabilities. This has advanced us to the status of having eliminated the threat of offensive tunnels inside Israeli territory. We closed the gaps and are on the way to overtake the enemy with regard to the underground tunnel threat."

According to the senior IDF officer: "We can now identify, using this technology, tunnels at depths of dozens of meters. We can initiate subterranean blasts. The balance of terror has shifted to an entirely different position with regard to the underground tunnel issue." He further revealed that about a year ago, on orders from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who had presented the IDF Southern Command with the major challenge of eliminating the tunnel threat, a technological laboratory was established at the IDF Gaza Division HQ. This laboratory is known in the IDF as "The Brain." It employs engineers, geologists and technology specialists, as well as anyone who can contribute their knowledge to the effort of coping with the tunnel threat in the Gaza Strip.

The senior IDF officer said: "We have been monitoring the route of this tunnel for quite a while. We waited for it to be excavated into Israeli territory, in order to maximize our operational achievements. This is the first tunnel Islamic Jihad has ever excavated into Israeli territory after having made the decision, pursuant to Operation Protective Edge, to become involved in the tunnel activity just like Hamas." Regarding the question of whether Hamas had known and authorized Islamic Jihad to excavate the tunnel, the senior officer said that no infrastructure project can be implemented in the Gaza Strip without Hamas' authorization.

What about a possible response by the terrorist organization from the Gaza Strip? The senior IDF officer had this to say: "Islamic Jihad sustained a serious blow which it justly deserved. The Jihad Movement currently faces a dilemma, and it will be difficult for them not to respond owing to the large number of casualties they sustained and the loss of their tunnel. They are facing a dilemma as to how to respond as time passes and we move farther away from the blasting of the tunnel. Attempts are underway to relieve the tension and the Egyptians and Hamas are doing their best to prevent Islamic Jihad from responding, but Islamic Jihad has their own independent agendas, supported by Iran."

The Complex Equation

The assault of the IDF on the media this last week had not stemmed only from the desire to provide the public with information regarding the significance of the strike. It was intended, first and foremost, to convey messages to the numerous players who are active in this theater of operations, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Egypt, Qatar, Hezbollah, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the USA and Iran (and that is only a partial list).

Lt. Col. (res.) Alon Evyatar, formerly a consultant to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said that "Everything is interconnected with everything, and the situation is highly volatile." He added that the Israeli strike had pushed Islamic Jihad into a highly problematic position, as tremendous pressure is being exerted on the Movement to respond, both "from the ground" and by their exclusive patron – Iran. At the same time, opinions within Hamas differ as to whether to allow the Movement to respond or not, while heavy pressures are being exerted by the Egyptians to prevent any response, as President al-Sisi's prestige is invested in the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

"The agreement itself is no more than a cellophane wrapping at this stage," adds Alon Evyatar. The only practical element it contains is the addition of Palestinian Authority supervisors at the border crossings with Israel (as of last Wednesday) and the Egyptian border. In Rafah, the border crossings are not opened anyway, as the Egyptians demand that Hamas eliminate the route of terrorism into the Sinai. The meeting of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official, with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah last week may be viewed against the background of the shaky reconciliation agreement. This meeting has been a clear signal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen.

The recent developments in Syria have also had an impact, as players like Hezbollah and Iran are keenly interested in avenging the Israeli attacks in Syria by heating up the situation in the south.

Even without the blasting of the tunnel by Israel this week, the situation was extremely complex. The recent events have just added to the tension. "This equation contains so many unknown variables that it is difficult to tell how things will evolve. In my estimate, the story has not ended yet," says Evyatar.

Bennett against Manelis

One of the unusual events of the last week was the frontal media attack staged by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett against IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis.

The current IDF Spokesman did not rise through the ranks of the media but rather through the ranks of military intelligence. Among other positions, he served as the intelligence officer of the Gaza sector, so he is thoroughly familiar with the complexity of this theater. Hearing his announcements for the first time, it was evident that his messages – too 'soft' to Minister Bennett's liking – had not been aimed at Israeli ears, but were rather intended to relieve tensions in the sector.

According to Alon Evyatar, "Those messages, more than being aimed at the leadership of Islamic Jihad, were intended for Cairo. Egypt is Israel's primary ally in the region today and the driving force behind the Palestinian reconciliation agreement (which does not necessarily coincide with Israel's interests). The message 'we did not intend to hit members of the Jihad' was intended to convey to Egypt the fact that Israel had no intention of undermining the (Palestinian) reconciliation."

Meanwhile, in New York

On Wednesday, on the streets of Manhattan, there were no indications of the car ramming attack of the previous night, in which eight people had been murdered. No one spoke about the tunnel incident in the Gaza Strip, and the media had no interest whatsoever in the volatile situation in southern Israel. To a considerable extent, one could get the impression that terrorism has evolved into a fact of life for the western world, and that it is no longer a phenomenon unique to Israel.

Tolerance toward terrorist attacks is rapidly approaching zero. These are bad news for the Palestinians, who still believe that they can promote their national cause through terrorist attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly appears to be just one of so many other ethnic and territorial conflicts around the world.