The Fourth War in Gaza: The Formula for Deterrence between Israel and Hamas

Nizar Abdul Kader | 17 Jun 2021

The fourth round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian factions led by Hamas erupted on May 10, 2021. This round lasted for 11 days only, while the 2014 war went on for 51 days. However, the latest round has embodied important developments in terms of military and strategic dimensions. These developments will not be limited to the future of any military confrontation between Palestinians and Israel; rather, it will include any potential confrontation between Israel, on the one hand, and Hezbollah and Iran, on the other.

This paper seeks to highlight the objectives and outcomes of the recent war and its impact on the formula of deterrence between Palestinians and Israel.

Course, outcomes and objectives of the war

On May 10, 2021, Hamas struck Jerusalem with 8 missiles when Israel rejected to respond to the movement’s warning to stop its violations in the al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem and release Palestinians detained during the latest uprising in the holy city.

Israel considered targeting Jerusalem by Hamas on the day in which it celebrates the “unification of Jerusalem” after occupying the city in June 1967 a big insult. So, Tel Aviv rushed to launch Operation “Guardian of the Walls” which included destructive air, sea and land strikes against Gaza Strip with out getting involved in a ground incursion like the 2014 third round. In return, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the rest of Palestinian factions responded to Israeli bombardment with Operation “Sword of Jerusalem” which included firing missiles against settlements around Gaza and cities in central and southern Israel.

On the Palestinian side, the 11-day war led to the death of 254 people, about 80 of them were fighters, more than 4,000 injuries, the displacement of more than 75,000 people, and a wide-spread destruction of the infrastructure, government services and installations, houses and factories. Material losses were estimated at $322 million. On the Israeli side, the war led to the death of 13 Israelis, 1 of them was a soldier, more than 400 injuries, damages to thousands of buildings and vehicles, as well as, losses to the Israeli economy, not to mention the cost of the war itself.

Military infrastructure, missile storage and manufacturing facilities, missile launching pads, and the network of tunnels were the main targets of the Israeli intensive strikes. However, it seems that Israel’s huge efforts in the 2014 war, as well as, the recent round have failed to destroy these military infrastructures. Palestinian factions continued to launch missiles with intensity, even before the cease-fire took effect. Over 11 days, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had successfully launched 4,360 missiles; an average of 400 missiles per day. According to Israeli estimates, some 3,400 of the rockets that were launched actually crossed into Israeli territory, while the rest fell short of the border inside Gaza or landed out at sea.[1]

During the war, Israel was surprised by the progress Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have achieved in their missile capabilities, whether in terms of range - Palestinian missiles struck areas as far as 250 km in central and southern Israel (Ayyash-250) - explosive power, precision or launch intensity, which overwhelmed the Iron Dome systems. Israel claimed that the Iron Dome was able to intercept 90% of Palestinian missiles.

Israeli intelligence played a key role in the war[2] and succeeded in monitoring, locating and targeting[3] the first and second tier of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leadership. However, Israeli intelligence failed in locating and destroying Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s arsenals of thousands of rockets, mortar shells and launching pads. This explains why Palestinian factions continued to fire about 400 missiles daily toward Israel.

Ron Ben-Yeshai, an Israeli military analyst at Ynet website, said it is still early to know how successful the Israeli strategy was in the recent war. However, it was clear that the Israeli army failed to stop the launch of missiles which continued throughout the war. Hamas succeeded in striking Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and forcing more than 1 million Israelis to hide in shelters.[4] Ben-Yeshai pointed out that the Israeli army had difficulty in dealing with Hamas’ ability to launch missiles because most of these missiles were hidden, protected, charged and serviced through underground tunnels. “There are also hydraulic launch pads,” Ben-Yeshai added.[5]

In an article in Maariv newspaper, Liraz Margalit, a researcher at the Herzilya Center, said that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad succeeded in building a military power capable of striking the core social and financial centers in Israel, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv respectively.[6]

It was clear from the beginning that the Israeli army is avoiding ground confrontation with Hamas. In the fifth day of the war, Israeli leadership tried to trick Hamas that it is preparing for an imminent ground attack on Gaza by spreading misleading information through media outlets. The objective was to force Hamas to move its fighters, thus targeting them by extensive airstrikes that lasted for 40 minutes in which 160 fighter jets took part.[7] However, it seems that Hamas did not fall for the Israeli bluff. Therefore, this war has proved the common military principle that air capabilities do not win wars without ground deployment.

It was striking in this round of escalation that Hamas – unlike all previous rounds of conflict – was the party that took the initiative. first of all, it took Israel by surprise when it carried out its threat on May 10, while Israeli intelligence and military assessments affirmed that Hamas is deterred and cannot carry out its threat. Hamas had also imposed its decision in terms of escalating the fighting by setting the time of missile salvos and cities to be hit.

In terms of targets, it was noticeable that the intention behind Hamas threat to the Israeli government and striking Jerusalem by missiles was to change the formula of deterrence which was stable since the 2014 war. Hamas wanted to include Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque in this formula to be perceived as the “guardian of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa”. Israel, on the other hand, wanted to prevent Hamas from achieving this victory and sought to “regain deterrence” by delivering a decisive blow to the military infrastructure of the “resistance” factions in the Gaza Strip.

The formula of deterrence between Israel and Hamas

When we talk about achieving the “element of deterrence”, we are talking about a complicated process leading to the threat of using military force to prevent the “rival” from changing the status quo. Threats to use deterrence come in two forms:

First, using available force to prevent the rival from achieving his objectives by defeating him militarily or preventing him from carrying out his threat which is called “deterrence by denial”.

Second, punishing the “rival” by threatening to destroy his essential infrastructure which is called “deterrence by punishment”.[8]

Israel’s goal in the last previous rounds of war on the Gaza Strip was to achieve deterrence: prevention and punishment. We can take the 2014 war on Gaza as a good example. In that war, Israel used all combat power in the air, on land and at sea to achieve deterrence and prevent Hamas from launching missile attacks against Israeli settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip or using the network of underground cross - border tunnels used by the Palestinian militant group to carry out raids inside Israel.

In that 15 - day war, Israel sought to deter and punish Hamas by trying to destroy the military infrastructure of the militant group. It also sought to destroy civilian infrastructure, including thousands of residential houses as a way to punish the civilian incubator for Hamas in Gaza and to remind the group of its responsibilities for the damage that took place there. That was based on the premise that Hamas represented a “half state” and consequently should remember its responsibilities towards its people. Despite the huge scale of devastation left by that war, Hamas succeeded in prolonging the war and depleting the Israeli forces. That was clearly reflected in the high death toll among the ranks of the attacking forces which was probably the reason behind Israel’s declaration of a unilateral cease-fire. 

Since then, Israel has continued to impose a land, sea and air blockade on the Gaza Strip, which represented a state of war but in other means. Based on the limited and mutual deterrence factor between Hamas and Israel, the truce lasted for seven years as both sides were preparing for the next round of war between them.

Following the declaration of the cease-fire in the last war on May 21, 2021, both sides repeated the same scenario that took place at the end of 2014 war as Israel and Hamas continued to claim victory against each other. Israel’s Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared victory over Hamas claiming that his country can boast in degrading the group’s military capabilities and setting them back for years, and killing more than 200 militants of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.  For Hamas, it was a totally different story as the group’s leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar declared the victory of Hamas over Israel claiming that the organization is still maintaining a missile attacking capability and the will to fight and deter Israeli aggressions.

Therefore, we have two alleged victories which means that the battle is not over yet, and this may raise questions about Israel’s ability to restore effective deterrence even though it used its full fighting capability in that military encounter. However, Tel Aviv did not dare to launch a land military operation as it already did in 2014 war.

It was quite evident since the early days of the war that the Israeli leadership pursued the strategy of “punishment” towards Hamas after the latter dared to fire rockets towards Jerusalem on the “Day of Jerusalem” where the Israelis usually mark the occasion of the unification of the city following the war of 1967. Israel also wanted to retaliate for Hamas attacks against targets in central Israel and Tel Aviv that took place for the first time since the creation of state of Israel. Therefore, Israel launched air strikes backed by bombardment by sea and land to destroy most of the group’s military and civil infrastructure with focus on weakening the military resistance by attacking missile launching platforms, network of tunnels, missile storage and manufacturing facilities and killing a big number of its leaders. 

It seems obvious that the strategy pursued by Israel in this war lacked a well-defined political goal in contravention of the war theory which states that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Even though Israel wanted the cost of that punishment to be more than the group can afford, the conflict between the two sides entered a new stage after Hamas and he Islamic Jihad succeeded in possessing a wide and long-range missile capability that can hit targets deep in Israeli cities and other sensitive objectives.

Hamas was fully aware that firing rockets towards Jerusalem could lead to an all-out war with Israel. However, the group’s decision was based on well-informed political and military calculations that can be summarized follows:

  • Hamas wanted to prove that it is the only Palestinian entity qualified to lead the Palestinian people and take the initiative from the old-aged Palestinian National Authority whose legitimacy has continued to erode. It also wanted to prove its ability to defend Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque particularly after President Mahmoud Abbas individually decided to postpone the Palestinian elections that were due on May 23, 2021 under the pretext of Israel’s rejection of holding elections in the city of East Jerusalem.
  • Hamas had to take advantage of the current political crisis in Israel, Netanyahu’s vulnerable political position and the shift in the U.S. political trends after the election of Joe Biden as the U.S. President. Had the group done so, it would have restored the U.S., global and Arab interest in the Palestinian cause, and changed the political formula imposed by the Trump administration with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • It was quite normal for Hamas to try to end the stifling blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 through military means after it felt that it had the necessary military capability to fight this battle.
  • Hamas was extremely confident that it could absorb the subsequent Israeli intense attack and effectively respond by firing -with unprecedented intensity and ferocity-thousands of rockets towards Israeli cities. That action enabled the militant group to overwhelm and defeat Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system and impose a new formula for deterrence.

At the end of the day, both sides-Hamas and Israel- believe that they have achieved the deterrence factor. Meanwhile, Hamas has realized that it succeeded in moving the Palestinian issue forward and restoring the global and Arab interest to find a solution to the conflict that can protect the rights of the Palestinian people. More importantly, one of the objectives of that war for Hamas was to end the long- lasting blockade on the Gaza Strip. That idea was stressed by the group’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, at a press conference on May 26, 2021 when he stated that the Islamic resistance would “destroy everything” if the problems in the Gaza Strip were not solved.

Conclusions

The final assessment of the outcomes of the latest round of war between Israel and Hamas -which ended as a result of Egyptian mediation efforts and U.S. pressures by unconditional cease-fire- as well as the political gains for both conflicting parties will probably require more time. This is true particularly as the political gains of that military encounter is much related to the political interactions in both the Palestinian and Israeli landscape, political action at both regional and global levels, and how long the state of calm can persist.

And yet, it can be said that the war on Gaza has not achieved a clear victory for Israel as Benjamin Netanyahu and his military leaders have wished, as the Israeli military campaign was intended to achieve a long-term conflict de-escalation after changing the formula for deterrence with Gaza. At the same time and while Hamas has proved the progress of its missile capability and its support for the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Islamic shrines there, and succeeded in re-establishing the link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it failed to translate this achievement into a new truce with better terms than the current ones.

It is not in the interest of either side to end the state of calm and resume a new round of war in the short-run. While Hamas will probably seek to capitalize on the outcomes of the latest war through expanding its influence in the Palestinian decision-making, trying to ease the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, and gaining an international legitimacy  as a major Palestinian actor that cannot be overlooked, Israel -for its part- will seek to contain the rise of Hamas through enhancing the role of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and in the reconstruction process there with no intention to revive the peace process with the Palestinians. Instead, Tel Aviv will continue to hinder the Palestinian reconciliation process, the formation of a Palestinian unity government, and any Western opening-up to Hamas. In other words, Israel will engage once again in a silent war against Palestinians using its own political and economic means.

Endnotes

[1] Judah Ari Gross, “Guardians of the walls wasn’t the resounding victory, the IDF had hoped for”, The Times of Israel, May 23, 2021.

[2] Judah Ari Gross, “IDF intelligence hails technical win in Gaza”, The Times of Israel, May 27, 2021.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Wadi’ Awawdeh, “Firing of Missiles, Marches Continue,” al-Quds al-Arabi, May 7, 2021.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Liraz Margalit, an article in Maariv newspaper, May 21, 2021.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nizar Abdel-Kader, The Israeli Strategy to Destroy Lebanon, (Beirut, Shams, 2010). pp 53-54.

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