As long as the IDF does not possess a system for intercepting short-range rockets, the en masse elimination of leaders of the Qassam launching apparatus is the almost sole means available to Israel in
order to end the rocket attacks, or at least minimize them.
IDF and Shin Bet officials know that eliminating several Islamic Jihad leaders would not eliminate the organization’s technical capability to produce and launch Qassams. However, an all-out targeted elimination offensive against group members in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as was the case Monday night, may undermine the organization’s motivation. Should this offensive continue, the Islamic Jihad (with the approval of its masters in Teheran) may agree to declare a unilateral ceasefire, a hudna, which is being discussed by several Hamas leaders
at this time.
Hamas does not launch Qassams because the group’s political leaders are interested in preventing a wide-scale IDF operation in the Strip. They also wish to ease the economic pressure on residents. Therefore, they are considering a ceasefire declaration that would enable them to continue to gain strength, reinforce their rule in the Strip, and reach an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas that
would grant them international legitimacy and a chunk of the funds promised to the Palestinian Authority in Paris.
From an Israeli standpoint, such ceasefire is unwanted, because it would enable Hamas and Islamic Jihad to build up and boost their military power. This would make it more difficult for the IDF if and when it is forced to enter the Strip in the future. On the other hand, the IDF does not rush to enter the Strip at this time for fear such operation would involve casualties and a heavy price to the Israeli economy. Also, there is no certainty that such campaign would bring about an immediate end to Qassam attacks.
Under such circumstances, a targeted eliminations offensive is the last default option available to decision makers in Jerusalem. If it fails, there would be no other choice but to dispatch large forces to the Gaza Strip for an extended period.
In fact, the offensive that was launched Monday is the second to last step in the “pressure scale” employed by Israel vis-à-vis the Hamas regime in Gaza. The first phases were economic: Minimizing the supply of fuel, goods, and electricity. The next step was IDF operations 1-2 miles inside the Strip. The next and second to last step is a targeted killing offensive against Islamic Jihad. This organization is the one launching Qassams with Hamas’ permission, while Hamas makes do with mortar fire.
Should the offensive against Islamic Jihad bear fruit, Negev residents would feel immediate relief and the political pressure on the government to order the IDF to enter the Strip would decline.
Yet if the anti-Jihad offensive would not bring about the desired results, the IDF would shift to the last step on the “pressure scale”: An all-out offensive on Hamas. At first, Hamas military bases will be attacked from the air and with ground missiles, and if this is not sufficient we would see the launch of an en masse targeted elimination attack against Hamas leaders. The risk inherent in such offensive is that Hamas, which up until now refrained from firing Qassams at the western Negev, would join Islamic Jihad and launch a counterattack of rockets on western Negev communities and the southern town of Ashkelon.
Hamas possesses large stockpiles of rockets, including long-range ones with a large warhead that can cause casualties and great damage in southern communities. This would require the IDF to immediately embark on a large-scale operation in the Strip in order to curb the attacks.
This mutual deterrence created between Hamas and the IDF is the main reason why the army is focusing its efforts on Islamic Jihad at this time. The successful offensive that started Monday night points to a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of intelligence information available to the Shin Bet and IDF, as well as improved operational capabilities aimed at producing surgical strikes.
The question is whether what happened Monday constitutes a one-time opportunity, or whether the Shin Bet and IDF have the ability to sustain this offensive until it bears fruit. An ongoing sequence of strikes is critical for success. The IDF estimates that gravely hitting Islamic Jihad leaders would deter Hamas leaders as well. This move has another advantage: A surgical targeted elimination offensive causes almost no harm to Palestinians who are uninvolved in terror and does not lead to a humanitarian crisis.
Islamic Jihad, as expected, is wowing revenge, and delivering on it. The rocket and mortar fire barrages Tuesday morning are an expression of this. The question is what will happen in the coming days. Would the IDF be able to sustain its offensive until the Islamic Jihad stops, or would the army be forced to shift to the last step and focus its efforts on Hamas? At this time, the IDF does not rush to adopt the last option, among other reasons because of the weather, which does not allow for ongoing aerial activity – and also because of President Bush’s visit, scheduled for early January.