Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, the current earthquake in Egypt has enormous implications for the well-being of Israel, and not in a good way. Put simply, the course of action that seems self-evidently proper to right-minded Americans — punishing the Egyptian military, ending military cooperation, suspending aid — will almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on Israel’s peace with Egypt. The irony is, it won’t particularly affect the course of events inside Egypt — the Egyptian military is too powerful internally, and too deeply hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, for an American spanking to deter it. Nor would restoring the Brotherhood to power make the lives of ordinary Egyptians better. On the plus side, it would make us feel better knowing we had struck a blow, however symbolic, for democracy in the Middle East. We Americans love symbolic politics.
America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s. It’s the carrot, or bribe, that keeps Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel, despite its enormous unpopularity on the Egyptian street. That treaty is critical to Israel. And no, there’s no reason to think that peace with the Palestinians would make the Egyptian agreement unnecessary, nor suddenly dissipate the hostility of the Egyptian street. More likely the opposite: a disruption in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship would have a devastating impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Egypt has been a critical mediating force for years, both between Israel and the PLO and between the PLO and Hamas. And this is without discussing the sudden new importance of Israel-Egyptian cooperation given the rise of Al Qaeda-linked actors in Sinai (which I’ve written about in my latest Forward column — watch for it).
The horrific footage out of Cairo reflects not only Egypt’s worst dreams coming true, but Israel’s as well. The Obama administration is going to punish the Egyptians. At least that is how Washington began to act as of Wednesday evening. Congress has signaled that it might suspend military and economic aid to Egypt. Given the current atmosphere, there is a good chance that the Pentagon will suspend all cooperation with the Egyptian security establishment.
The statement by Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh mourning Ben-Laden and condemning his killing is getting a lot of internet traffic. It’s instructive; optimists make much of the group’s occasional hints at softening and its conflicts with Al Qaeda. Worth remembering that it still sees itself as part of Jihad International. Here is Ynetnews.com’s report of what Haniyeh had to say.
By contrast, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is calling Ben-Laden’s death a good thing. Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority’s Government Media Center (and co-editor with Yossi Alpher of bitterlemons.org), is quoted on Ynet as follows:
Eliminating Ben-Laden is good for the peace process. We need to overcome the violent methods that Ben-Laden created, together with others around the world.
I’ve seen a few references already to the Hamas statement as showing how you can’t trust Fatah, including one in a comment on my last post. Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any references in English to Khatib’s statement on behalf of the P.A., which puts things in a very different light. I guess it’s too off-message.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Israel’s Channel 10 News reports on its Nana-10 website. The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right:Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.
You can tell he cares about this, because he rarely makes any effort to rein in his cabinet. His foreign minister, alert readers recall, got up in front of the United Nations General Assembly last fall and laid out a foreign policy vision radically at odds with the prime minister’s, including exchanges of population in a future peace agreement, which he said was decades away. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist—just a laconic statement from Bibi’s office that the prime minister, not the foreign minister, articulates the country’s foreign policy. Which is a weird thought in itself. Moreover, the interior minister repeatedly attacked the settlement construction freeze that the prime minister had imposed last year.
So this is something Bibi cares about. Unlike gestures toward peace which he makes in response to American pressure, and which his ministers attack mercilessly without consequences. He really doesn’t want it suggested that there could possibly be an upside to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
It’s not like he can keep the lid on things forever. Abu Mazen, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, has said repeatedly in the last few days that he, not Hamas, is in charge of foreign policy, that he still wants to negotiate and make peace with Israel, he still sees Bibi as his partner. He’s even said that the pact calls for elections in a year; if Fatah wins, it should end Hamas control of Gaza. Bibi can’t keep that from the Israeli public, but maybe he can prevent his ministers from smiling when they hear it.
Well, maybe you can’t keep Abu Mazen’s words totally concealed from the public, but you sure can try. David Bedein, an American-born settler activist and head of what he calls the Israel Resource News Agency (and very nice guy and good friend when he’s not talking politics), sent out a mass email tonight furiously attacking the JTA for its report on what Abu Mazen is saying. He’s mad that JTA reported the news without spinning like a good Jew should.
Boy oh boy, Jews say the darnedest things, don’t they? You’ve got to love it. We’ve been hearing for years now that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas isn’t capable of making peace with Israel even if it wants to because, among other things, it doesn’t speak for Hamas, which controls Gaza (see here, here and here, for example).
It’s a bit confusing, I know, but life is like that. For the moment, the best response would be to make sure they put air-sickness bags in front of the seats in shul alongside the chumashim tomorrow morning, in case congregants start to experience vertigo from the sudden, abrupt shifts in position..
It’s like the old joke about the beggar who asks the rabbi for a ruble to buy a meal. Later that day the rabbi walks past the inn and sees the beggar eating a big slice of cake. “This is how you waste my money?!” the rabbi demands. “Excuse me,” the beggar replies. “Yesterday I couldn’t eat cake because I had no money. Today I have money but you tell me I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
Now, as soon as the deal was announced yesterday, my mailbox started filling up with evidence that it had killed any hopes for the peace process, which presumably was thriving up to now. Exhibit A was this statement by Mahmoud a-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, who said it would “not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel.” The morning after (today) reinforcements started arriving in the form of links to this statement by Zahar’s boss, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, calling on Fatah to renounce its recognition of “the Zionist entity.”
On second thought, though, this actually indicates that stopping the peace process was not part of deal. If it were, Haniyeh wouldn’t need to be asking for it now.
One of the most important news stories of the week was also one of the least noticed. According to a Saudi newspaper quoted in the Jerusalem Post and in Ynet, Israel may be ready to free Marwan Barghouti as part of a prisoner swap for Gilad Schalit.
Barghouti is the most popular leader on the West Bank, bar none. He emerged during the Oslo years as one of the young, home-grown leaders of Fatah, imprisoned during the first intifada, fluent in Hebrew and outspokenly in favor of a two-state solution. He’s been in prison since 2005, serving five life sentences for murder during the second intifada. Since the day of his arrest there’s been open speculation that Israel was going to hold him to build up his street cred and then dramatically release him to become a sort of Palestinian Mandela. It turned out he was going to be tried, sentenced and incarcerated as a terrorist chieftain, not a potential partner.
But the speculation hasn’t let up. Here’s Uri Avnery in 2007 calling him Mandela, here’s Jerusalem Post leftist-in-residence Larry Derfner in 2004 calling him a thug and no Mandela, and here is uber-pundit Ron Ben-Yishai writing in Yediot in 2008 that freeing Barghouti would be a win-win for Hamas, Fatah and Israel alike, because he’s the only one who could bring Hamas to heel, unite the Palestinians, sign a peace treaty and make it stick.
Bradley Burston called last winter for Barghouti to be released summarily, without a Schalit deal, so as to strengthen Fatah and embarrass Hamas. Netanyahu & co. don’t seem to have been smart enough to pick up on that. Still, if they’re going ahead and reluctantly freeing him to Hamas as part of a swap, it could still be a serious game-changer.
Here is a 9-minute YouTube clip of Barghouti giving a rare filmed interview in January 2006 in prison, in English, to Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 news (and here’s the transcript of the interview).
As of this writing, Israel hasn’t acknowledged any responsibility for the January 19 assassination in Dubai of Hamas military operative Mahmoud al Mabhouh, but Israelis of every stripe are talking and writing about it as if Israeli provenance were established fact. The questions they’re asking are not who dunnit, but whether its benefits outweigh its costs, what the deed says about Israel’s moral stature and, especially, how did the vaunted screw up and leave its fingerprints all over the crime scene, turning itself into what the London Daily Telegraph now calls “The Keystone Spooks.”
In case you missed it, Mabhouh was smothered to death in a Dubai hotel room in what apparently was supposed to be a covert operation. Unfortunately for the assassins, their comings and goings were elaborately documented by surveillance cameras before and after the deed. Dubai police published their photos and details of their faked identities, falsified European passports, cheesy fake beards and all. Israel is now embroiled in diplomatic tussles with the mostly-friendly countries whose passports it used.
For many Israelis, if not most, the operation’s embarrassing aftermath doesn’t outweigh the benefits of eliminating an enemy. Eitan Haber, the unfailingly unflappable Yediot columnist and former Yitzhak Rabin speechwriter, dismissed the widespread hand-wringing and second-guessing as misplaced in a February 18 column.
This is not a great screw-up, and those who are happy at this seeming failure have no reason to be so gleeful. I am much happier that we are rid of a bitter and cruel enemy, Mr. Mabhouh, who we sought out for many years before his demise.
The bottom line for Haber is deceptively simple:
There are two questions we need to ask in this case: Was the objective — assassinating Mabhouh — achieved? The answer is yes. Were the assassins nabbed by the enemy? The answer is no.
Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, by contrast, was outraged. He sees the Dubai affair as a reflection of a growing Israeli disregard for the norms of international behavior, which is driving Israel more and more to resemble its enemies.
There was once a time when Israel longed to be a member in good standing of the community of nations. There was a time when one of its fondest goals was to end its status as a nation in quarantine, boycotted, unrecognized, unwanted, kept firmly at arm’s length.
No longer. Without asking its people, without a second thought, Israel, at its highest level, has taken an executive decision. Unable to beat the forces who want to see Israel as one of the world’s primary pariah states, it has resolved to join them.
Determined to take our fate into its own hands. Israel, at its highest level, has decided that the job of delegitimizing the Jewish state must not be left to foreigners and amateurs. Showing itself desperate to be a pariah state, Israel will now get it done on its own.
Yediot Ahronot commentator Ronen Bergman, one of the best-informed observers of Israel’s intelligence agencies, doesn’t think the operation was a success even on its own terms as an undercover security mission. Without entering into the moral aspects of the affair, he sees the operation’s negatives outweighing its positives from a strictly pragmatic viewpoint. As he wrote in a February 19 op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal: