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FRIDAY FEATURE - Waiting out the Latest Rocket War

Friday Feature

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14 Nov 2019
FRIDAY FEATURE - Waiting out the Latest Rocket War
The escalation along the Gaza border this week has had Israelis fretting over whether this would turn into yet another prolonged rocket war with their Palestinian adversaries. After the drawn-out rocket wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and against Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009, 2011 and 2014, the Israeli people are understandably on edge about how long they will need to hold out until calm is restored. It can take several broken ceasefires before quiet really returns. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders know there is public pressure to finally deal with the source of this rocket threat inside Gaza, but that it also would come with a great price and that any solution is also hampered by the current political impasse in Israel.

As we all watch to see how this latest rocket war will play out, here is some important background information concerning the main players involved and when this crisis could abate.

Who is Firing at Israel?
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the main force attacking Israel in the current confrontation, is a terror militia created by Iran in the early 1980s solely as a means to bleed Israel. It is essentially an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), and until now has never exhibited any real political aspirations to rule over the Palestinian population. Rather, the ayatollahs in Tehran have offered weapons and a salary to any Palestinian males of fighting age who want to attack Jews, while their commanders answer directly to the IRG in Iran.

This distinguishes Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Hamas, which is an indigenous Muslim terror militia that arose from the alleyways of Gaza in late 1987, at the start of the first Palestinian intifada, in order to both destroy Israel and turn “Palestine” into an Islamic state. Taking its ideology from the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement, Hamas aimed from the beginning to 1) eradicate the Jewish state, 2) replace Fatah and the PLO as the rulers of the Palestinian people, and 3) impose shari’a law in the entire Land of Palestine.

Who is Calling the Shots in Gaza?
Hamas has been the main power broker in Gaza since 2007, when it seized control of the coastal Strip from Fatah. They allow PIJ to operate in Gaza so long as they do not challenge Hamas rule or endanger its grip there by going too far against Israel. Hamas does not mind Islamic Jihad firing a few hundred rockets into Israel, but not to the point that it would invite a heavy IDF response, especially a ground incursion into Gaza, which might threaten Hamas. 

Both PIJ and Hamas receive financial and military support from Iran, but because the vast majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, they each have faced criticism from fellow Sunni Arabs for coming under the patronage of the Persian/Shi’ite regime in Tehran. Hamas tries to guard its independent decision-making, while PIJ is simply an arm of the Iranian military. Because Iran has more direct control over Islamic Jihad than Hamas, it appears from recent reports that Tehran has bolstered their rocket arsenals in Gaza to a point where they are now on a par with Hamas in terms of advanced weaponry, though not foot soldiers and small firearms.

How Long Might it Last?
First of all, because Hamas has the burden of governing Gaza, and in particular of feeding its people, they have tended in recent years to moderate – in relative terms – their hostility towards Israel. With Egyptian mediation, they had recently reached a temporary ceasefire with Israel which was allowing money from Qatar to once again enter the Gaza Strip to help salvage its failing economy. Reports indicate that Egyptian security officials are working with Hamas to restore the truce as soon as possible.

Second, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been launching waves of rockets into Israel ever since Israeli surgical air strikes in Gaza City and Damascus took out two of its top militia commanders, who were in the process of planning terror attacks on Israelis. PIJ is widely expected to keep firing rockets at Israel until they feel they have exacted enough revenge for their losses. Barring any major incident that could further escalate the conflict, most in Israel hope and expect it to last only a few more days.

At the same time, it is clear that Israel pulled off another stunning intelligence coup and dealt the terrorist organization a serious setback. Besides having to quickly fill major holes in its chain of command, at some point the leadership of Islamic Jihad will be summoned to Tehran to explain how its upper echelons got infiltrated so effectively by Israeli intelligence. Hizbullah faced a similar dilemma just a few months ago when it was discovered that Israel not only had found their cross-border terror tunnels in south Lebanon, but also had somehow gotten its hands on the very blueprints for their construction. Such situations breed a lot of distrust within the inner circles of these terror mafias and it can take time to recover.

Will These Rocket Wars Ever End?
Over the past two decades, the Israeli military has preferred to deal with the persistent rocket threat from Gaza through a three-pronged approach involving 1) the use of heavy air power against military targets in Gaza, 2) strong civil defense systems like the Iron Dome, and 3) limited, temporary incursions into Gaza – when necessary – to “mow the grass.” Israelis along the Gaza border have been demanding a tougher response to finally eliminate this threat, and political rivals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have portrayed him as weak for allowing the threat to fester and grow over the past decade.

Israeli government and military leaders must continue to weigh the pros and cons of a major incursion into Gaza to try to end the rocket threat once and for all. So far, they have banked on outlasting the Palestinians through the steady use of superior air power, the impressive success of Iron Dome, and the Israeli public’s resilience.

In many respects, the relentless rocket threat from Gaza resembles the march of Palestinian suicide bombers from 1996 to 2005. Many Israelis despaired in those days that there was no clear way to stop this brutal tool of terror. But Israel found a way, and the Palestinians eventually came to the realization that their strategy of destroying Israel one human bomber at a time was futile. With renewed Israeli alertness, ingenuity and resolve, the rocket threat one day will prove itself equally pointless in Palestinian eyes.

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