Gaza Expert Warns of Large Escalation
Also what Operation Pillar of Defense has to do with the Likud primaries
As the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense took aim at Hamas’ leadership and weapons capabilities both on the ground and under, a lot of questions immediately surfaced. What is the likelihood that Israel will send ground forces into Gaza? What do we need to know about Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas chief who was blown away this afternoon? What factors prompted Israel to take on such a bold military initiative? What about reports that Hamas is taking aim at Dimona?
I called Nathan Thrall to talk about what’s happening. Thrall is a Jerusalem-based analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group for which he covers Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. You might have seen his work in the New York Times, The New Republic, GQ, Slate, and the New York Review of Books. He’s also contributing editor at Tablet. Earlier today we spoke about Israel’s operation in Gaza, a place where he has lived and reported from extensively.
What is the biggest takeaway from what’s happened today?
It looks like it’s going to be a large escalation; it seems very likely that Hamas is going to retaliate strongly. They’ll probably use longer-range weapons than they’ve ever used. The real question is whether any of this is going to change the basic status quo in relations between Israel and Gaza, and I think the answer to that is probably ‘no’ unless it escalates to the point that Israel reoccupies parts of Gaza, which is always a possibility.
What makes this different from other rocket barrages from Gaza, which have been going on for months?
What is the difference this time? This time we had hundreds of thousands of residents of southern Israel who are going into shelters and their kids weren’t going to school. Forget about left and right in Israel. Basically, the entire political spectrum in Israel was saying very clearly that this was unacceptable and was in favor of doing something. And you had the various analysts and commentators and security officials saying things like, ‘there’s no good solution and if there was one, you would have seen it already.’
There are no good solutions for Israel for this problem and the fact is that nobody in Israel believes that whatever they do, whether it’s another Cast Lead or something strong but short of that, if they go in with ground troops in a limited way, if they go in with ground troops all over Gaza, if they occupy just the border between Egypt and Gaza, if they split Gaza into three and occupy little strips, or if they occupy the whole thing, everyone believes that at the end of that, Egypt’s not going to take it and Abu Mazen is too weak to be put back there, so what you’re left with is Hamas control of Gaza again.
I think it’s not unfair to say that the real difference this time is that we have a Likud primary in two weeks and Israeli elections coming up very shortly. It’s simply untenable for there not to be a response as there had not been a response in previous rounds of these escalations.
So, you absolutely see the influence of the upcoming Israeli elections in this operation.
I don’t see any other explanation. Given that the other escalations have been even bigger, there have been more rockets. Not only that, but this thing started after people were already talking about a ceasefire. The front page of Haaretz this morning was talking about a ceasefire and there was a lull at four in the afternoon when Jabari’s car was hit.
Likud looked very impotent the last few days. Everyone I talked to in Israel—whatever their political persuasion—was of the view that something had to be done. I don’t see how it could have been ignored. I don’t want to overthink it by saying ‘well, this is the eve of Olmert’s announcement of his reentering the race and he is someone who actually did quote-unquote “take care of Gaza,” he is someone who actually did eliminate a nuclear program instead of just talking about it. Whether Olmert specifically plays any role, it’s certainly the case that the elections made a difference.
What’s the significance of Ahmed Jabari’s assassination? How badly does it hurt Hamas?
In terms of the significance of Israel strategically, I think it’s pretty irrelevant; I think he’ll just be replaced by one of the senior regional commanders in Qassam [Military Brigade]. He was sort of the de facto head of Qassam, but the official head of Qassam before him was Mohammad Deif, who is still alive and is reported to be severely wounded from an Israeli attack.
And so, Jabari had been considered the strongman of Qassam in Gaza, he was the chief broker of the Gilad Shalit deal. When Egyptian intelligence was brokering the Shalit deal in Cairo, the Israelis very much wanted to meet with Jabari and they knew he was sort of the central power in the negotiations. David Maidon, the Mossad envoy in the negotiations—I think he may have been former Mossad at the time, I can’t recall; he’s certainly former now—he asked near the end of the negotiations if he could talk to Jabari directly and he [Jabari] refused.
One of the most senior prisoners who was released in the Shalit deal—he was a member of the Shura Council—I asked him about the negotiations and he interrupted me and said “There’s just one man who is responsible for my freedom and for everyone else’s freedom and that Ahmed Jabari.” He was considered to be a very tough negotiator and the Israelis came to respect him that way.
Jabari is, of course, famous for personally escorting Shalit through the border crossing when he was released, there was a famous photo of him or video of him walking with the current head of the Egyptian intelligence who didn’t hold that position then. Israel has tried to assassinate him a number of times before.
There are reports that there are rockets being fired in the direction of Dimona. Is that something that people are raising alarm about, given its significance?
I just heard that claim from someone in Gaza that Hamas says they would be targeting Dimona. I would assume that doesn’t make Israelis happy, but I also assume that Dimona’s pretty well-protected and that Hamas rockets aren’t going to do much to it.
Can you really foresee Israel taking over Gaza once again in an easy turn of events?
I think it’s Israel’s preference to not do that again. It really depends entirely on what kind of response we see from Gaza and whether Israel is able to deal with it from the sky. I think that’s very much their preference. Gaza is not south Lebanon, it’s a very flat place. It’s much easier for Israel to deal with from the air.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
The name of the IDF operation references a famous midrash