What’s Next for Israel and Hamas?

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In a time of uncertainty, everybody wants to know “what’s next?” Rabbi Yochanan once said, "Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to fools.” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 12:2)

In the Middle East, particularly, making prediction is an ungrateful business. If an analyst were to predict in November 2010 that within a year Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would see their dictators (in power for a combined 100 years) fall, he’d be out of a job...at least until December of 2010, when the turmoil in the region began.

I used to be careful about making predictions but have slipped recently and am paying the price for it. Here are a few examples, all from the last week:

  • On Tuesday afternoon, I spent 30 minutes talking about the last six weeks (and more broadly, last 11 years) of violence on the border with students at Midreshet Lindenbaum. I was asked “if violence continues at this level, what is the chance of an escalation and military operation?” If it continues at this level, I responded that it’s more likely than not. I think I even said a 60% chance or more existed for an operation. “But,” I emphasized, possibly even twice, “this is not probable because things have begun to quiet down already.”
  • Little did I know, several hours later Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet would approve Operation Pillar of Cloud (Defense). They had deliberately spread disinformation about de-escalation. At least I was not the only one fooled. On Wednesday, Hamas Chief Military Commander Ahmad Ja’abri felt safe enough to get in a car and travel on one of Gaza’s main roads. He was killed by the Israeli Air Force in a targeted strike. Thus a further escalation of violence and an operation I had deemed unlikely 24 hours earlier. It is now in its sixth day.
  • On Wednesday, I was speaking to a group of students at Tel Aviv University. The topic of the lecture, which was planned months prior, was the Iranian nuclear program. But the operation, then in its second day, called for a briefing on Gaza. I spoke about Pillar of Cloud, and explained that besides tricking Ja’abri into getting out of hiding, Israel’s most brilliant tactical move was hitting 20 depots of Fajr 5 rockets within the first two hours of the operation. By taking out most – if not all – of Hamas’ “long range” (75 km) Fajr 5 rockets, Israel had de facto eliminated the organization’s most obvious “game changing” response to Ja'abri’s elimination. “When will we know if rockets will be fired at Tel Aviv? Today? Tomorrow?” a student asked, quite nervously. “This is not a likely scenario,” I told her. "You must understand that since 1991 Tel Aviv has never been under such a threat," I tried to say in a calming voice.
  • Thursday evening: The David Project and AIPAC ran a program at the IDC, Herzliya. The AIPAC speakers were running late because of the escalating situation. Later I would learn that their train had stopped when sirens went off in Tel Aviv. I began to stall by giving yet another briefing about the situation. Again, I said “Israel has reportedly eliminated most, though not all of the Fajr 5 rockets.” “Definitely not all of them,” a student said while raising her hand frantically. “Rockets have just been fired from Gaza to Tel Aviv,” she said. Thankfully, the rocket fell in an open area in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv.
  • After my briefing, a young American student approached me. She was visibly flustered and pale and wanted to know if it would be safer to stay in Tel Aviv for Shabbat, or head to Jerusalem. It was clear to me that once the first Fajr was fired, several if not many more, could be fired in coming days. Jerusalem seemed out of the equation at that point. Even in the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein never targeted Jerusalem. What I did not consider were liability issues or the fickleness of the situation. And so, within seconds I answered quite definitively, “Go to Jerusalem! Definitely Jerusalem!” Friday evening, Jerusalem experienced its first (and last, to date) siren, as rockets flew towards the city, landing near a Palestinian village, south of the holy city.

That’s it. I’m done making predictions, at least for this operation. And yet, I’m constantly asked what’s next.

I don’t know. What’s clear is that Israel and Hamas are negotiating a ceasefire. The gaps are enormous, but so is the pressure from the international community (the U.S., Russia, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and the UK are only some of the countries interested in a quiet). I can’t speak for Palestinians but it’s clear most Israelis want the hostilities to be over. In recent polling, only a third supported a ground incursion.

And yet, whether it’s designed put more pressure on Hamas to sign the truce, to be prepared for what might come our way, or because it’s been decided, tens of thousands of troops, tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers are mobilizing for a ground incursion into Gaza. Some analysts estimate that the window of opportunity for a truce is at 36 hours, others 48, before ground forces enter Gaza.

Assuming a truce is not reached soon, here are six possible scenarios, from the least likely to the most likely. That, again, is a prediction, so keep in mind everything could change in moments. This is based in part on an excellent analysis written by military correspondent Amir Rapeport in the Israeli Hebrew daily Maariv last Friday.

1. The “Egyptian Option”

Egypt takes over the Gaza Strip from Hamas. While Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza seem to be best buddies these days, and while this could arguably be good for Israel (many Israelis would love for Gaza to become “Egypt’s problem”) this option is about as likely as the U.S. taking over Gaza. I’ll leave it at that.

2. Recapturing Gaza

  • Scenario Explained - IDF sends many thousands of troops into Gaza for several months or years. After crushing terror infrastructure and actively removing Hamas leadership, Israel stays in power indefinitely, either maintaining a military occupation, or annexing Gaza, allowing Israelis to return and giving Palestinians Israelis citizenship.
  • Pros – As we’ve learned in Lebanon, while truces and enforcement mechanism may or may not ensure that Hamas doesn’t use its weapons against Israelis, maintaining actual, on-the-ground, Israeli presence is the only known way to ensure Hamas does not arm itself and build up its capabilities to target Israelis. While the following options could postpone conflict, they create a situation where each round is more severe than the last one.
  • Cons – Could cause major rift in Israeli society (right-left); Israel’s allies in the world, including the U.S., would object vigorously, increasing international pressure to unprecedented levels (possibly imposing sanctions on Israel); Severe discrimination if Palestinians remain under occupation; Demographic balance shifts and threatens the Jewish character of state if Palestinians receive citizenship. Israel would also find itself controlling an extremely hostile population, which could lead to further (albeit internal) violence.
  • Ends – Never (Israel stays in Gaza indefinitely)
  • Probability – Nonexistent (not even being weighed)

3. Several Months Long Operation

  • Scenario Explained - IDF sends many thousands of ground troops into Gaza for several months or years. The IDF not only crushes terror infrastructure but actively removes Hamas leadership and paves the way for Fatah to return. Once Fatah regroups, Israel pulls out.
  • Pros – Restores deterrence, stops rocket fire. 2002 Defensive Shield model – despite fear of going in, this is what stopped terror.
  • Cons – Extremely high stakes. Especially in the static stage of staying in Gaza, IDF would be sitting ducks (Lebanon style) for Hamas ambushes. Unprecedented international pressure. Damage to Israel-Egypt treaty.
  • Ends – After many months or even years, with Hamas hostilities undermined only by memorandum of understanding signed between Israel and Fatah.
  • Probability – Extremely low.

4. Short Aerial Strike

  • Scenario Explained - Israel continues striking Hamas targets, as it has been for several more days, but does not involve ground troops.
  • Pros – Minimal risk to IDF soldiers. IAF can surgically hit specific targets (like Ja'abri).
  • Cons – “Target Bank” runs out (it’s already running out). Does not bring Hamas “on its knees, begging” for ceasefire (commonly used terminology). Airstrikes can result in many civilian casualties (several dozen have died so far) and could bring about international pressure to stop.
  • Ends – Within days to a week, most probably with ceasefire but could also end without one.
  • Probability – Medium.

5. Short Combined Attack

  • Scenario Explained - The short aerial mission is combined with a brief, several-day long, focused ground incursion.
  • Pros – Puts more pressure on Hamas and allows Israel to deal with some of the rocket launchers buried under ground. Risks for soldier casualties low (as the IDF has been planning for this scenario for several years and is prepared; IDF will use tanks and APCs with a lot of cover).
  • Cons – Every ground incursion entails some risk of complications and casualties (on both IDF and Palestinian civilian sides). IDF needs at least a month to stop rocket fire. This means during such an operation, rockets would continue to be fired (angering Israeli civilians, like in 2006). Egypt might also take real action against Israel in this scenario, jeopardizing the peace treaty.
  • Ends – Within days to a week, most probably with ceasefire but could also end without one.
  • Probability – High.

6. Several Week Long Ground Incursion

  • Scenario Explained - IDF sends many thousands of troops into Gaza for several weeks until rocket fire ceases completely or significantly. Only after causing serious damage to Hamas and other terror groups, Israel pulls out unilaterally
  • Pros – Allows the army to deal with terror infrastructure in a serious way, without the cost of long-term occupation or international pressure
  • Cons – Very high chances of IDF casualties, many civilian casualties, international pressure on Israel, peace with Egypt endangered. Once Israel pulls out, Hamas rebuilds infrastructure. Many say this is too similar to the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, which is seen as an extremely partial success.
  • Ends – Within several weeks, almost definitely with ceasefire
  • Probability - High (and increasing)

After writing this I realize this is a very partial list. Anyone could easily muster up four more options.

And all of this is before we begin to discuss the impact of the truce negotiations, weather conditions (forgiving to date but with signs of winter coming) or the Israeli elections (Netanyahu’s rivals have, like the weather, been supportive, but this won’t last for long, with elections looming two months away).

Who’s to say that what is unlikely today won’t be tomorrow’s reality? For those who really want to know what tomorrow will bring to this upside down neck of the woods, my best advice is - follow the news.