By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On November 11 an Israeli army team near Khan Yunis was spotted by a suspicious Palestinian Hamas commander, according to reports. An exchange of fire left a senior Israeli officer and the Hamas commander dead. Airstrikes were carried out by Israel. The next day Hamas launched an unprecedented barrage on Israel. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to avoid war. I covered the conflict on the Gaza border and then wrote several articles about it. There are also video and video interviews below, and video from Gaza and Ashkelon as well as more recent pieces as the story developed.
Gaza waiting for an explosion
November 11, 2018, The Jerusalem Post
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Calm was supposed to prevail in Gaza after Qatar agreed to help civil servants in the Hamas-controlled area. It came after thirty-three weeks of clashes and riots along the border of the Gaza Strip in which more than 200 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded. It also came after months in which there was rocket fire ever few weeks and where tens of thousands of dunams in the Negev were burned by balloons launched from Gaza. On Sunday a serious and developing incident that was still happening at press time, comes after months of Israel and Hamas squaring off against eachother.
The situation has brought Israel and Hamas to the brink of conflict several times. In July Israel launched the largest air raids since 2014. Waves of rockets also were the largest in years. In October Islamic Jihad, at the behest of Iran, launched a barrage. Each time Israel was able to thwart the rockets, but it was always only a matter of time before something more serious happened. At each juncture Hamas and Islamic Jihad also sought to test Israel. In July a soldier was killed by sniper fire. The protesters in Gaza also sought to test the ring of security fences.
The crises in Gaza has been further complicated by the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has held up negotiations and both Qatar and Egypt have put pressure on the PA to try to break the impasse. Similarly Hamas boasts that it has won the day with Israel, getting the Qatari money. Hamas claimed it was getting help to “break the siege,” in a press release on Saturday. It also blamed the PA for the sanctions it has suffered because the PA has starved it of salaries.
In Israel the complexities also involve anger about the never ending conflict along the border. Communities have protested in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They want a solution. They want quiet. And it plays into Israeli politics where there is jockeying to see who is the most “tough” on Gaza. What comes out of all of the debates over the last months is that many people want to talk tough, but no one wants a real conflict. Hamas knows that and also doesn’t want a conflict. Even Iran, which supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad, doesn’t want to see its investment squandered by a real war.
But given all of this tension it is always a situation on a knife edge. One false move and a major conflict could develop. It remains to be seen whether the Qatar transfer will bring calm or whether it was the calm before the storm.
Kfar Aza, November 12, 2018
On the border of Gaza
The sirens in border communities along the Gaza Strip sounded throughout the evening after the sun set on Monday. Amid the rising tensions with Hams, more than 200 rockets were fired into Israel. Kfar Aza, which sits on the Gaza border east of Gaza city. From a viewpoint near a gas station the whole of the northern Gaza Strip was lit up. Rockets fired from the border flew toward Sderot around 8:45 at night. We could hear the booms of interceptions in the distance, but there was no sirens where we were. It was one of several salvos fired over my head, some seting or sirens and others heading further inland.
I’d been in the same spot next to Kfar Aza in 2014 during Protective Edge. Then the fields were full of armored vehicles; bulldozers, Merkava tanks, and armored personnel carriers, all waiting to go into Gaza. They churned up the fields and left tread marks everywhere. Today those fields are full of small crops and newly planted trees.
Floodlights in Kfar Aza framed the hilltop I sat on. Traffic on the road behind made it seem like life was going on as normal. But the peace and quiet along the border, and seeming normalcy, was broken up by rocket fire. At one point an Iron Dome Tamir missile floated through the air, searching for its target, almost grasping in slow motion to find it. It found it somewhere over Nahal Oz, with a big flash and then, a second later, a boom. Sirens here on the border give residents only a dozen seconds to search for shelter and residents were sleeping in armored rooms. A Magan David Adom emergency vehicle parked at the gas station nearby, waiting in case of casualties. Car alarms sounded in the distance, set off by the interceptions of Hamas missiles.
From time to time the heavy explosions could be heard in Gaza, the kind that make you wince a bit from their strength and percussion, the evidence of Israeli retaliation. For six months the border communities have been waiting for an answer to the tensions along the border. Thirty-three weeks of clashes and riots along the border have led to more than 200 deaths in Gaza and thousands of casualties. On the Israeli side thousands of dunams have been burned by Hamas balloons. Each month Hamas chooses the time and the place to attempt to strike at Israel, with riots, or other threats. Residents have said again and again that they want quiet, and that the government must act. But on Monday, after a serious escalation the night before in Khan Yunis, there was expectation that the government might act.
The shocking element of conflict along the Gaza Strip is always how normal life is just hundreds of meters from where rockets are fired. Life goes on. People drive to work and put their children to bed. From time to time sirens force residents to seek shelter. People in cars cannot seek shelter and they have no way of usually knowing there are sirens around them, so they drive along the streets, unaware of threats.
After the moon set on Monday the cold set in. December is creeping up. A gathering of the curious packed together to look over into Gaza. Residents, local workers, emergency workers, photographers. The fraternity of onlookers who come to see if there will be a war. So we waited, in the cold, for the next rocket, the next siren, and news of whether this round of conflict would end with a ceasefire or would lead to escalation.
Ashkelon, 0100 (1am), November 13
A traumatic night in Ashkelon
The city of Ashkelon has been on the frontline of Hamas rocket fire for years. Monday night felt different than the past. After several direct hits to buildings, the city felt more exposed than usual, despite Iron Dome which was intercepting rockets overhead. I drove in after midnight as reports emerged that a rocket had struck a house.
In a residential neighborhood the street had been cordoned off by police and emergency services. Search and rescue teams, and the fire department were deployed. A long line of people, mostly residents of the nearby apartment buildings, were standing on the street. Some had been evacuated from a building that was struck. Others were awakened by the impact. There were young men and older women in bathrobes, having come out in the brisk night air to see what was happening. Many seem traumatized, some hugging, a few crying. Emergency workers were speaking to the residents. The smell of gas hung in the air and the fire crews warned people not to smoke.
As the crews worked in the building sirens sounded overhead and the scores of residents who had come out now had to run to find shelter. Some crouched down next to cars and walls. Overhead Iron Dome missiles intercepted several rockets. Flashes and booms could be seen and heard. It was a duel in the skies above, a war over our heads, while on the ground the emergency crews waited to emerge and get back to work.
The working class neighborhood where the direct hit happened seemed like it was already suffering through this war too much. Some people had blank stares, others seemed nervous. The urban area felt claustrophobic, like there was no where to run from the rockets, even though there were many options to seek shelter. The large number of emergency crews, and the presence of IDF search and rescue, showed that the emergency services were well prepared for this eventuality. Eventually a 60-year old man would be found dead in the rubble according to ZAKA emergency response. Another man and woman would be found on the fourth floor of a building that was struck, according to MDA.
Driving out of the city after 1 in the morning, with the radio giving more updates of nearby sirens and rocket fire, the sense of impending conflict was palpable. The tragedy in Ashkelon will be learned from and examined. But for the residents, suffering trauma, the memory of this night will remain.
This is how a war that no one wants begins
November 13, 2018 The Jerusalem Post
On Tuesday Israel radio commentators were convinced that Jerusalem was not doing enough to confront the unprecedented rocket fire from Gaza. The government doesn’t want war and it has been telegraphing that over the last six months, leaving its enemies in Gaza to choose how, when and where to strike. This was abundantly clear when a Kornet laser-guided anti-tank missile slammed into a bus near the Gaza border on Monday, November 12.
The attack on the bus presaged a massive barrage of around 400 rockets that began at dusk and continued until after midnight. A trickle continued into the morning. This is precisely the place that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be, faced with a decision of what to do with Gaza. For almost ten years under Netanyahu the Gaza crises as percolated, and it has largely been ignored. This is because Hamas is an irredentist terrorist organization, isolated by the international community and its rule over Gaza can be segmented from the Palestinian Authority control in the West Bank. As such a kind of “bad cop, very bad cop” policy developed in Israel, in which Mahmud Abbas and the PA is seen as the ossified inciter, whereas Hamas is seen as a gang of terrorists whose threats can be checked by Israel’s mastery of defense technology and total dominance on air, land and sea.
The conflict with Hamas is not one where Israel has sought to win by dealing Hamas a decisive blow, or overthrowing the extremists. Instead it is a conflict that has largely been fought pragmatically, seeking a kind of balance of terror. Firstly, this is accomplished by checking all Hamas threats, whether it is the missile threat or tunnels or sea commandos. But Hamas has tried other methods, such as 33 weeks of riots along the Gaza border. These clashes, usually on Fridays, have led to 200 deaths and thousands injured in Gaza. From Jerusalem’s point of view checking the riots has been a success, but it comes with a price. The price is one in which Hamas knows that Israel doesn’t have an answer to massive protests. That is why there is no real ceasefire, and it is why at every opportunity Hamas had tried to push and provoke.
It’s hard to map out exactly what caused the recent escalation. Was it the clashes near Khan Yunis in which an Israeli officer was killed and a senior Hamas member was killed? Or was it the Qatari money being transferred to Gaza and Hamas thinking it hadn’t gotten enough from the deal? Was it something else?
If we look back at the last Gaza conflicts, whether it was the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006, the lead up to Cast-Lead in 2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012 or Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas desired a war. During Pillar of Defense, Hamas fired 100 rockets which triggered the conflict. But there was not one single day during that week-long operation that Hamas ever fired 400 rockets. That means that the rocket fire of November 12-13 was more serious than during Pillar of Defense. In Cast-Lead one count says Hamas fired 750 rockets into Israel, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that 571 rockets were fired from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009. That means that the rocket fire on Tuesday night was almost as serious, in one night, as all the rockets fired during one of the worst conflicts in Gaza.
There are many factors that drove Hamas to war in the past. One was the strength of its rocket inventory. With support from Iran and trafficking across Sinai, Hamas was able to increase the range of its rockets in the past. In 2014 it fired at Hadera with M-302 rockets that have a range of 150km. This was a serious escalation at the time. Hamas was arrogant in its pronouncements in 2014, claiming that any attack on Gaza would “open the gates of hell.”
What is driving Hamas today? In March of this year Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza with his intelligence chief, Majed Faraj. They were supposed to visit a wastewater treatment plant. It was supposed to lead to some kind of reconciliation, one of many that Fatah, which runs the PA, has sought with Hamas. But instead someone tried to blow up Hamdallah’s convoy. Weeks later the Great March of Return protests began, culminating in the deaths of dozens the day that the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem. This has to be seen as connected, an attempt by Hamas to gain relevance and to resist rapprochement with the PA.
At the same time Hamas has been enticed by chances of a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, and of receiving financial incentives from Qatar. Egypt opposes Hamas because of its connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt wants quiet in Gaza. Qatar has supported Hamas and seeks to help reconstruct Gaza. But both Egypt and Qatar are unhappy with Hamas intransigence. At the same time both Egypt and Qatar are also unhappy that the PA has been sanctioning Gaza.
The PA role in isolating Gaza is often not acknowledged. However over the last six months the PA has sought to isolate Gaza, even more than Israel has at times. In May Ramallah cut salaries to Gazans. In July activists protested in Ramallah aganst the cuts. The PA doesn’t want a separate Israel-Hamas agreement because it will legitimize Hamas. At the same time the PA is angered by the US embassy move and has cut off discussions with the Americans. This leaves both the PA and Hamas in Gaza unmoored from traditional allies and channels of communication.
Amid the isolation of Gaza and the PA, Israel appears to have done well in the region. The visits to the Gulf states in October and early November by Netanyahu, and ministers Miri Regev, Israel Katz, Ayoub Kara, were a major breakthrough. At the same time Netanyahu has sought to focus attention on the Iranian threat in Syria. A war in Gaza is thus the least desirable outcome, to be dragged into another round of fighting that leads to an inevitable conclusion where Israel wins the battle, but the slow-burning conflict continues forever. There is no Gaza strategy, nor has there been since 2006, and especially not since the end of Cast-Lead in 2009.
The details of Gaza’s woes are well known. Whether it is lack of electricity, or sewage seeping into the ocean, or basic things like lack of jobs and a future for almost a million Gazans who are under 18, these facts will not change. Neither Israel, nor Egypt, Qatar, the US or Ramallah have a plan to alter Gaza’s current course. The blame can be put at the feet of Hamas, which could choose to surrender power. But it likely will not do that because it doesn’t really have the people of Gaza at heart, but rather a larger agenda.
With all of these factors known, no one wants a war. But a war may come precisely because it is the only thing that Hamas thinks it can provoke to get some international or even regional attention. A Kornet fired at a bus and 400 rockets fired at Israel were an intention to start that war.
November 14, my interview on TRT
November 16, The National Interest
How Hamas brought Israel to the brink of elections chaos
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on November 14 in the wake of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza. His resignation has now plunged Israeli politics in chaos as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must juggle what’s left of his fragile coalition government and is being pressured to appoint Naftali Bennet, head of the Jewish Home party, as the new Defense Minister. Hamas, which has been challenging Israel with six months of protests and rocket fire from Gaza, has now achieved what it sees as a victory. Despite its inability to penetrate Israel’s defenses around Gaza, it may bring down the government.
The latest round of violence, that resulted in Lieberman’s departure, began on Sunday, November 11 when an IDF special unit ran into trouble in Gaza during what has been characterized as a sensitive reconnaissance or surveillance operation. During an exchange of fire with Hamas near Khan Yunis a high ranking Israeli officer was killed and in subsequent air strikes seven Palestinians were also killed, including a senior Hamas commander. The next day tensions were palpable and Israel heightened security around the Gaza Strip. Armored personnel carriers were brought up to the border. At dusk Hamas fired a Kornet anti-tank missile at a bus carrying soldiers and unleashed a barrage of rockets. Over the next twenty-four hours more than 460 rockets were fired at Israel, killing one man in Ashkelon. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of the rockets that were headed for towns and cities near Gaza. Others landed in open areas. The IDF retaliated by striking 160 targets.
This kind of cycle of rocket fire and air strikes has become common over the last six months. It began with Hamas launching the Great March of Return in late March of this year, sending tens of thousands of protesters to the border fence. Hamas wants to achieve relevance after 12 years of governing Gaza with nothing to show for it. Hamas has been isolated in the last year not only by Israel’s blockade, but also because the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has sought to sanction civil servants in Gaza and cut their salaries. Opposed by Egypt, Hamas receives some financial support from Qatar and Iran, and verbal backing from Turkey, but it has failed to govern. It has also failed in its terror campaign against Israel as Jerusalem has found ways to stop Hamas tunnels, confront its “naval commandos” and thwart its rockets. In October Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets at Israel and the IDF struck 80 targets in Gaza. In July, after Hamas fired 170 mortars and rockets into Israel, the air force also struck 40 sites in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s real concern is the Iranian threat and especially Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon. He has called for Iran to leave Syria and Israel has waged a campaign against Iranian targets in Syria and against Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Since 2011 Israel has struck 300 targets in Syria, 200 in the last two years. Israel has also warned about Hezbollah’s growing network of rocket factories and facilities in Lebanon, especially as Iran’s ballistic missiles become more precise and Iran is alleged to have transferred that precision guidance to Hezbollah. In October Russia transferred the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria and has warned in late October against any “hot heads” in Israel testing the air defense. This means Israel has to work doubly hard to figure out how to continue to confront the Iranian threat in Syria. It also means working with the US administration. US envoy James Jeffrey said on November 14 it was the US goal to see Iranian forces leave Syria. Also Netanyahu recently visited Oman and Israeli ministers visited the United Arab Emirates in early November. This points to a breakthrough in Israeli relations with the Gulf and is part of the wider regional strategy to confront Iran.
Given the Iran-focused regional strategy, the last thing Netanyahu wants is a difficult ground war in Gaza. Netanyahu already presided over the 2014 war in Gaza and the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, which achieved little except setting back Hamas’s abilities. Those conflicts were largely the result of Hamas importing weapons and expertise via smuggling from Sinai, taking advantage of the chaos of the Arab Spring. Now Hamas is weaker and its conduit to Sinai is cut off. Netanyahu and his security establishment, according to numerous conversations I had, are prone to avoid another war. They want an Egyptian-backed ceasefire to hold while maintaining the status quo in Gaza. This enables Israel to focus on the region, instead of inflaming the region with a war in Gaza.
It was in this complex context that Lieberman resigned. A competent defense minister who helped manage Israel’s $19 billion defense budget and helped secure the $3.8 billion in annual US military aid that was signed in 2016, he shepherded through deliveries of the first F-35s and also contemplated new purchases by Israel of a squadron of F-15s and new helicopters.
But politically Lieberman found himself isolated at the defense ministry. Eran Lerman, vice-president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, and a former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, describes Lieberman as isolated by the rest of Netanyahu’s security cabinet which supported the ceasefire. Those who supported the ceasefire included the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Chief of Staff of the army. In such a position Lieberman’s role as defense minister became less relevant and he chose to resign so as to appear more hardline on Gaza than Netanyahu. This will play well in upcoming elections, which will be held some time next year, because many Israelis in the south who have been affected by the rockets think that Jerusalem should deal Hamas a strong blow. That was clear on Wednesday and Thursday night as protesters burned tires near Sderot, one of the towns often targeted by Hamas. Protesters have also marched on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Domestic policy is now ruffling Netanyahu’s carefully crafted foreign policy and strategic equation. In this respect, Hamas’s claims of “victory” in the ceasefire are not just empty rhetoric. Hamas didn’t achieve a military victory. But toppling the defense minister is a kind of victory because it shows that Hamas can shake Jerusalem’s politics at the very top, after years of being unable to put a dent in the iron ring of security fences and missile defenses around Gaza.
Now Netanyahu will be faced with several complex choices. Naftali Bennet, the head of the Jewish Home party, says he wants the defense portfolio. But Bennet, like Lieberman, will want to be an independent defense minister. This would once again challenge Netanyahu to do more in Gaza. The Prime Minister could also take on the job of defense minister himself, something former Israeli prime ministers have done. But Netanyahu is already the foreign minister, how he would handle the three top jobs, concentrating so much power, is unclear.
If Israel’s Prime Minister is unable to sort out the current instability then the country will go to elections. Given Netanyahu’s interest in the current regional strategy, elections would be another distraction. This was exactly what he sought to avoid in Gaza, but now it may be presented in another form. After almost ten years in power, Netanyahu will have trouble winning another election. He wants to preserve his legacy and being forced to elections and potentially forced from office now would be humiliating. Lieberman has thrown Israel’s politics into momentary chaos at a crucial time in the region. Hamas thinks it has gained an advantage and it may try to press that advantage or seek to interfere if it thinks it can gain something amid the instability in Netanyahu’s coalition.
Seth Frantzman on ABC Radio, Australia, at the Gaza border, November 12
Ceasefire shows how much Israel desires “quiet”
November 14, 2018
After more than 460 rockets were fired, the most ever fired by Hamas on a single day, Israel accepted a ceasefire on Tuesday. It is largely an empty ceasefire that joined many others over the last six months. It doesn’t answer the fundamental issues involving Gaza or address the demands of residents in southern Israel or of Gazans. It is another way for Israel to save face and not have to go into a serious war. It is another classic part of this deadly dance between Jerusalem and Gaza, between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership.
Much of the conflict with Hamas is known beforehand and almost choereographed, in the sense that the outcome is largely known beforehand. As long as Hamas does not kill more than one or two Israelis, it gets away with firing rockets, or trying to infiltrate or even firing a Kornet anti-tank missile at a bus. It says “we will increase the range of the rockets,” if Israel retaliates more harshly. Similarly Israel telegraphs its actions, warning residents to evacuate building. Therefore the long list of targets that Israel strikes may be important infrastructure but are not strategically important to Hamas or Israel.
The ceasefire will give Hamas strength for the next round as it contemplates its position. Hamas is very isolated and it has not achieved anything, despite the massive volume of rocket fire. But it has shown it can inflict damage. Questions remain about the Kornet missile and the number of buildings struck in Ashkelon. Questions also remain about the clash near Khan Yunis that appeared to have set this off, and also about what happened with the $15 million of Qatari funds. Now we may not know, since there has been another ceasefire, more tough talk from politicians, more photos of armored vehicles and security cabinet meetings, and more of the same. Someone wondered why Netanyahu is so “dovish.” He’s not dovish. He’s led several wars against Gaza. He is just extremely pragmatic and addicted to managing a conflict that seems to have no path to victory. He is cautious. Cautious can be good because it might save lives and suffering. It also preserves the status quo of a divided Palestinian entity, with one government in Ramallah and another in Gaza. That is what ceasefires means. It postpone problems. But can Gaza’s problems be postponed forever?
What I learned speaking to Israeli experts and insiders about Netanyahu’s gamble
November 17, 2018
To write a story for Defense News, I spoke with a variety of Israeli experts, insiders, former IDF commanders and experts in Israeli strategy. Many had served in the decision making pyramid in the past or been at the frontline of various wars. Their quotes were for an exclusive piece. But the sense I got from the discussions is that Netanyahu has embraced a grand regional strategy and viewed Lieberman’s desires, either for action or for grandstanding, as a distractions.
After Lieberman quit, one source told me that Netanyahu should keep the defense portfolio for himself. It would be easier to combine the duties as some former Israeli Prime Minister’s had. If the Defense Minister seeks to carry out his own policy there will be “a potential to crises and tension.” Lieberman was isolated in the Gaza crises and also over the last months. Heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, the Chief of Staff and others all opposed him. It was impossible for him to go on and he was increasingly irrelevant. A second source said that Israel is at a crossroads trying to work with other countries in the region and this regional role made the ceasefire necessary. But Netanyahu failed in not articulating this to people in the South affected by the rockets.
Several sources said that one problem is the public’s demand for a higher body count in Gaza. The public thinks that the 160 airstrikes didn’t harm anyone so they weren’t effective. This perspective notes that during the Second Intifada Israel killed large numbers of Palestinians but it took years to “win.” So Hamas can celebrate its “victory” in Gaza but Israel has not lost in Gaza. It’s not just about the body count. Netanyahu who prided himself in the past on being perceived as “tough” is not working more closely with the elites in the security establishment and the IDF high command, that support a kind of status quo and “conflict management” in Gaza.
Israel’s real concern is in the north and the Iranian threat. Netanyahu has embraced the necessity for diplomacy regarding Gaza, while preparing for the larger struggle in the region. A third source says Israel should find a way to allow investment into Gaza. “We have to find a solution over next months or years.” Hamas is perceived a pragmatic, not firing on Tel Aviv and also taking care not to fire the Kornet at a full bus.
Understanding the “cancer” of the Iranian threat is important, and it is where Netanyahu wants to put resources. As for choosing a defense minister, he could look among the former military men who were Chief of Staff or hold the position himself.
On November 18 Netanyahu held a press conference where he articulated his views. He said the country must remember the larger goal and strategy and not end up the way it did during the Oslo Accords or Second Intifada. He said that others were playing at politics while he cares about security. Then he said “I’m going back to work.”
The week from November 11 to 18 was a momentous one in Israeli politics. It is not over, the crises may have just begun.