Editor's Note: The following is an internal Stratfor document produced to provide high-level guidance regarding increasing tensions in Israel and Gaza to our analysts. This document is not a forecast, but rather a series of guidelines for understanding and evaluating events, as well as suggestions on areas for focus.
The ongoing Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers is taking on a much wider dimension than the usual retaliatory action between Israel and Palestinian militant factions. Ever since three Israeli teenagers went missing near a West Bank settlement during the night of June 12, Israel has responded with airstrikes in Gaza and raids in the West Bank in and around Hebron (and Bethlehem, to a lesser extent). Israel has pointedly held Hamas directly responsible for the kidnapping. Hamas has distanced itself from the kidnapping, but Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced the beginning of the third intifada June 23. There are also several indications that this conflict involves more than the usual suspects, with Iran and Russia possibly stoking the flames for their own interests. The following points must be investigated:
- The kidnappings have been claimed by a number of groups, some of whom have not had a history of operating in the Palestinian territories. The first claim for the kidnappings allegedly came June 13 from a branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant based in Hebron calling itself Dawlat al-Islam. Shortly thereafter, an unknown Palestinian organization called Liberators' Battalion of Hebron published a separate claim for the kidnappings via Israeli media. A group calling itself Brigades of Global Jihad posted a claim on a jihadist forum and then withdrew it. Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade denied that they had ever claimed the kidnapping, despite reports that they had taken responsibility in the immediate aftermath. On June 26, a claim was made by the Hezbollah Brigades, a branch distinct from the Lebanese Hezbollah militant organization, via Gaza-based Amad Press. We need to understand the origin of each of these groups, any connections they may have to Iran and their relations with mainstream militant factions Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad as well as with regional jihadist entities such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. A key question we need to answer is whether the Hamas core command was behind the initial kidnapping or if they are catching up to events in defending their position against competing militant factions.
- There have been reports of a limited call-up of reserves. Significant reserve call-ups can be extraordinarily expensive for a state as small as Israel, and the decision would not be taken lightly. We need details on the number of reserves called up and where forces are being concentrated to assess whether we are likely to see another full-scale invasion of Gaza and/or the West Bank.
- Hamas and Fatah were making bumpy progress toward creating a functional national unity government before the kidnappings, but there are two key players who have an interest in keeping Hamas and Fatah split between the territories: Israel and Iran. Israel benefits from a divided Palestinian territory in which it can negotiate with Fatah while keeping Hamas isolated, thereby allowing Israel to retain the upper hand in any peace negotiations that the United States attempts to push forward. Iran also benefits from keeping the Palestinians split, but for different reasons. Iran was able to develop a close relationship with Hamas when the group was isolated following the 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza. Iran wants to be able to maintain influence in the Palestinian territories via groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other factions. We noted last August that Iran was facilitating weapons shipments to the West Bank via Jordan for operations down the line. That is why it is imperative to drill into the groups claiming the kidnappings to discern which are likely shadow groups and what ties can be traced back to the mainstream Palestinian factions.
- There may be a Russian element to this conflict. Prior to the June 12 kidnapping, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received an invitation to visit Moscow and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, allegedly to talk about restarting the peace talks (though Russia has little interest in lending the United States a hand on that front). Abbas made the trip to meet with the Russian leadership June 26 in Moscow.
- On June 21, the Israel Defense Forces raided the local branch of Russian media agency RT in the West Bank city of Ramallah. RT Jerusalem shares a building with Palmedia, a media group that the Israel Defense Forces claims is linked to Hamas. Though Palmedia appears to have been the main target of the raid, it is curious that RT's office was also targeted, with their computers and hard drives taken into custody. It is unclear whether or how these developments are related, but we note that Russia has been more engaged in the Middle East than usual at a time when Moscow is keen on creating distractions for the United States. Russian movements surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation thus bear close watching in the coming days.