Four years ago on Nov. 4, while Americans were going to the polls to elect a new president, Israeli infantry, tanks and bulldozers entered the Gaza Strip to dismantle an extensive tunnel network used by Hamas to smuggle in weapons. An already tenuous truce mediated by the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak had been broken. Hamas responded with a barrage of mortar and rocket fire lasting several weeks, and on Dec. 27, 2008, Israel began Operation Cast Lead. The military campaign began with seven days of heavy airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a 15-day ground incursion. By the end of the campaign, nearly 1,000 poorly guided shorter-range rockets and mortar shells hit southern Israel, reaching as far as Beersheba and Yavne. Several senior Hamas commanders and hundreds of militants were killed in the fighting. Israel Defense Forces figures showed that 10 IDF soldiers died (four from friendly fire), three Israeli civilians died from Palestinian rocket fire and 1,166 Palestinians were killed — 709 of them combatants.
The strategic environment during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead was vastly different from the one Israel faces in today's Operation Pillar of Defense. To understand the evolution in regional dynamics, we must return to 2006, the year that would set the conditions for both military campaigns.
Setting the Stage
2006 began with Hamas winning a sweeping electoral victory over its ideological rival, Fatah. Representing the secular and more pragmatic strand of Palestinian politics, Fatah had already been languishing in Gaza under the weight of its own corruption and its lackluster performance in seemingly fruitless negotiations with Israel. The political rise of Hamas led to months of civil war between the two Palestinian factions, and on June 14, Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah. Just 11 days later, Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and killed two others, prompting a new round of hostilities with Israel.
In what appeared to be a coordinated move, Hezbollah on July 12 launched its own raid on Israel's northern front and kidnapped two additional soldiers, kicking off the monthlong Second Lebanon War. As Israel discovered, Hezbollah was well-prepared for the conflict, relying on an extensive system of tunnels to preserve its launching crews and weaponry. Hezbollah made use of anti-tank guided missiles, improvised explosive devices that caught Israel Defense Forces by surprise and blunted the ground offensive, and medium-range rockets capable of reaching Haifa. Hezbollah incurred a heavy toll for the fight, with much of the infrastructure in southern Lebanon devastated and roughly 1,300 Lebanese civilian casualties threatening to erode its popular support. Casualty numbers aside, Hezbollah emerged from the 2006 conflict with a symbolic victory. Since 1973, no other Arab army, much less a militant organization, had been able to fight as effectively to challenge Israel's military superiority. Israel's inability to claim victory translated as a Hezbollah victory. That perception reverberated throughout the region. It cast doubts on Israel's ability to respond to much bigger strategic threats, considering it could be so confounded by a non-state militant actor close to home.
At that time, Hamas was contending with numerous challenges. Its coup in Gaza had earned the group severe political and economic isolation, and the group's appeals to open Gaza's border — and for neighbors to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political actor — went mostly unheeded. However, Hamas did take careful note of Hezbollah's example. Here was a militant organization that had burnished its resistance credentials against Israel, could maintain strong popular support among its constituents and had made its way into Lebanon's political mainstream.
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Hezbollah benefited from a strong patron in Iran. Hamas, on the other hand, enjoyed no such support. Mubarak's Egypt, Bashar al Assad's Syria, Jordan under the Hashemites and the Gulf monarchies under the influence of the House of Saud all shared a deep interest in keeping Hamas boxed in. Although publicly these countries showed support for the Palestinians and condemned Israel, they tended to view Palestinian refugees and more radical groups such as Hamas as a threat to the stability of their regimes.
While Hamas began questioning the benefits of its political experiment, Iran saw an opportunity to foster a militant proxy. Tehran saw an increasingly strained relationship between Saudi Arabia and Hamas, and it took advantage to increase funding and weapons supplies to the group. Forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, along with Hezbollah, worked with Hamas to expand the group's weapons arsenal and build elaborate tunnels under the Gaza Strip to facilitate its operations. Israel soon began to notice and took action toward the end of 2008.
Operation Cast Lead
Hamas was operating in a difficult strategic environment during Operation Cast Lead. Hezbollah had the benefit of using the rural terrain south of the Litani River to launch rockets against Israel during the Second Lebanon War, thereby sparing Lebanon's most densely populated cities from retaliatory attacks. Hamas, on the other hand, must work in a tightly constricted geographic space and therefore uses the Palestinian population as cover for its rocket launches. The threat of losing popular support is therefore much higher for Hamas in Gaza than it is for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. At the same time, operating in a built-up urban environment also poses a considerable challenge for the Israeli military.
During Operation Cast Lead, Cairo did little to hide its true feelings toward Hamas. Though Egypt played a critical role in the cease-fire negotiations, it was prepared to incur the domestic political cost of cracking down on the Rafah border crossing to prevent refugees from flowing into Sinai and to prevent Hamas from replenishing its weapons supply. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, then in the opposition, took advantage of the situation to publicly rally against the Mubarak regime, but its protests did little to change the situation. Hamas was boxed in by Egypt and Israel.
The rest of the region largely avoided direct involvement. Turkey was focused on internal affairs, and Saudi Arabia remained largely aloof. Jordan's Hashemite rulers could afford to continue quietly cooperating with Israel without facing backlash. The United States, emerging from an election, was focused on shaping an exit strategy from Iraq. Many of Hamas' traditional wealthy Gulf donors grew wary of attracting the focus of Western security and intelligence agencies as fund transfers from the Gulf came under closer scrutiny.
Iran was the exception. While the Arab regimes ostracized Hamas, Iran worked to sustain the group in its fight. Tehran's reasoning was clear and related to Iran's emergence as a regional power. Iraq had already fallen into Iran's sphere of influence (though the United States was not yet prepared to admit it), Hezbollah was rebuilding in southern Lebanon, and Iranian influence continued to spread in western Afghanistan. Building up a stronger militant proxy network in the Palestinian territories was the logical next step in Tehran's effort to keep a check on Israeli threats to strike the Iranian nuclear program.
In early January 2009, in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, Israel learned that Iran was allegedly planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including anti-tank guided missiles and Iranian-made Fajr-3 rockets with a 40-kilometer (25-mile) range and 45-kilogram (99-pound) warhead. The Iranian shipment arrived at Port Sudan, and the Israeli air force then bombed a large convoy of 23 trucks traveling across Egypt's southern border into Sinai. Though Israel interdicted this weapons shipment — likely with Egyptian complicity — Iran did not give up its attempts to supply Hamas with advanced weaponry. The long-range Fajr rocket attacks targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the current conflict are a testament to Iran's continued effort.
The Current Geopolitical Environment
Hamas and Israel now find themselves in a greatly altered geopolitical climate. On every one of its borders, Israel faces a growing set of vulnerabilities that would have been hard to envision at the time of Operation Cast Lead.
The most important shift has taken place in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood carefully used the momentum provided by the Arab Spring to shed its opposition status and take political control of the state. Hamas, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, then faced an important decision. With an ideological ally in Cairo, Egypt no longer presents as high a hurdle to Hamas' political ambitions. Indeed, Hamas could even try to use its ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to achieve political legitimacy. When unrest spread into Syria and began to threaten Iran's position in the Levant, Hamas made a strategic decision to move away from the Iran-Syria axis, now on the decline, and to latch itself onto the new apparent regional trend: the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist affiliates across the Arab world.
This rise of the Muslim Brotherhood spread from Egypt to Syria to Jordan, presenting Israel with a new set of challenges on its borders. Egypt's dire economic situation, the political unrest in its cities, and the Muslim Brotherhood's uneasy relationship with the military and security apparatus led to a rapid deterioration in security in Sinai. Moreover, a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo on friendly terms with Hamas could not be trusted to crack down on the Gaza border and interdict major weapons shipments. A political machine such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which derives its power from the street, will be far more sensitive to pro-Palestinian sentiment than will a police state that can rule through intimidation.
In Syria, Israel has lost a predictable adversary to its north. The balkanization of the Levant is giving rise to an array of Islamist forces, and Israel can no longer rely on the regime in Damascus to keep Hezbollah in check for its own interests. In trying to sustain its position in Syria and Lebanon, Iran has increased the number of its operatives in the region, bringing Tehran that much closer to Israel as both continue to posture over a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
To Israel's east, across the Jordan River Valley, pressure is also growing on the Hashemite kingdom. An emboldened Muslim Brotherhood has been joined by disillusioned tribes from the East Bank in openly calling for the downfall of the king. High energy costs are severely blunting the kingdom's ability to contain these protests through subsidies, and the growing crisis in Gaza threatens to spread instability in the West Bank and invigorate Palestinians across the river in Jordan.
Beyond its immediate periphery, Israel is struggling to find parties interested in its cause. The Europeans remain hostile to anything they deem to be excessive Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians. Furthermore, they are far too consumed by the fragmentation of the European Union to get involved with what is happening in the southern Levant.
The United States remains diplomatically involved in trying to reach a cease-fire, but as it has made clear throughout the Syrian crisis, Washington does not intend to get dragged into every conflagration in the Middle East. Instead, the United States is far more interested in having regional players such as Egypt and Turkey manage the burden. The United States can pressure Egypt by threatening to withhold financial and military aid. In the case of Turkey, there appears to be little that Ankara can do to mediate the conflict. Turkish-Israeli relations have been severely strained since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Moreover, although the Turkish government is trying to edge its way into the cease-fire negotiations to demonstrate its leadership prowess to the region, Ankara is as wary of appearing too close to a radical Islamist group such as Hamas as it is of appearing in the Islamic world as too conciliatory to Israel.
Saudi Arabia was already uncomfortable with backing more radical Palestinian strands, but Riyadh now faces a more critical threat: the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist political activism poses a direct threat to the foundation of the monarchy, which has steadfastly kept the religious establishment out of the political domain. Saudi Arabia has little interest in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood encouraging Hamas' political rise, and Riyadh will thus become even more alienated from the Palestinian theater. Meanwhile Gulf state Qatar, which has much less to lose, is proffering large amounts of financial aid in a bid to increase its influence in the Palestinian territories.
Iran, meanwhile, is working feverishly to stem the decline of its regional influence. At the time of Operation Cast Lead, Iran was steadily expanding its sphere of influence, from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. A subsequent U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf and an intensifying U.S.-led economic warfare campaign slowed Iran down, but it was the decline of the al Assad regime that put Iran on the defensive. An emboldened Sunni opposition in Syria, backed by the West, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, could spill into Lebanon to threaten Hezbollah's position and eventually threaten Iran's position in Iraq. With each faction looking to protect itself, Iran can no longer rely as heavily on militant proxies in the Levant, especially Palestinian groups that see an alignment with Iran as a liability in the face of a Sunni rebellion. But Iran is also not without options in its effort to maintain a Palestinian lever against Israel.
Hamas would not be able to strike Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with long-range rockets had it not been for Iran, which supplied these rockets through Sudan and trained Palestinian operatives on how to assemble them in Gaza. Even if Hamas uses up its arsenal of Fajr-5s in the current conflict and takes a heavy beating in the process, Iran has succeeded in creating a major regional distraction to tie down Israel and draw attention away from the Syrian rebellion. Iran supplied Hezbollah with Zelzal rockets capable of reaching Haifa during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Hamas was limited to shorter-range Qassam and Grad rockets in Operation Cast Lead but now has Iranian-made Fajr-5s to target Israel's most cherished cities.
Hamas is now carrying the mantle of resistance from Hezbollah in hopes of achieving a symbolic victory that does not end up devastating the group in Gaza. Israel's only hope to deny Hamas that victory is to eliminate Hamas' arsenal of these rockets, all the while knowing that Iran will likely continue to rely on Egypt's leniency on the border to smuggle more parts and weaponry into Gaza in the future. The Hamas rocket dilemma is just one example of the types of problems Israel will face in the coming years. The more vulnerable Israel becomes, the more prone it will be to pre-emptive action against its neighbors as it tries to pick the time and place of battle. In this complex strategic environment, Operation Pillar of Defense may be one of many similar military campaigns as Israel struggles to adjust to this new geopolitical reality.