The nexus between Gaza, Lebanon and Iran
By Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and Dr. Michael Milshtein| September, 2021
|Photo: Map - Виктор В | CC BY-SA 2.0|
In recent months, Israel has been grappling with three key areas of security-related tension: the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Iran (particularly in the context of the Gulf region). The tension in each had evolved against a separate backdrop; however, the common denominator between all three is over-boldness on the part of Israel's enemies – who define themselves as members of the "resilience camp" – and their cautious attempt to reshape the rules of the game when addressing Israel.
The first manifestation of this phenomenon was Operation Guardian of the Walls (May 10-21), during which Hamas had initiated a large-scale military campaign for the first time in the absence of prior tension in the Gaza Strip and in response to developments in Jerusalem. In the Iranian context, the most prominent was the targeting of sea vessels in the Gulf region, some Israeli-owned, such as the attack on Mercer Street that cost two civilians (one British and the other Romanian) their lives. The most recent manifestation of this trend is Hizballah's launching of rockets at northern Israel following the IDF attack (which, in turn, followed the launching of rockets from southern Lebanon) for the first time since the Second Lebanon War (2006).
This series of events could attest to an evolving shift in Israeli enemies' logic, who were deeply restrained in recent years for fear of finding themselves in a large-scale escalation. This change follows shifts in the regional and international systems, primarily: the rise to power of a new U.S. administration which many in the Middle East perceive as being less inclined than its predecessor to use force in the region; Israel's focus on the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing internal political mayhem; as well as the weakness and anxieties displayed by the Arab Sunni world, especially the Gulf states, following its assessment, among other reasons, that Washington is no longer providing it with its full support as it once did.
The boldness shown by Hamas, Hizballah and Iran does not mean that Israeli deterrence is all but gone, and that these groups are willing to enter into a powerful conflict with it. It is trial and error designed to examine how to create an action sphere that will allow them to cause friction with Israel and retaliate without reaching a full-scale conflict. It is a "war between wars" of sorts led by the resilience camp and expressed differently in each arena: in the Gaza Strip it is the incendiary balloons; in the Gulf – the continuous targeting of sea vessels; and in Lebanon, the sporadic launching of rockets that has yet to be determined as one of two options – an exceptional incident or pattern expected to repeat itself in future.
The three monitor Israel's reactions to the various frictions and those of the regional and international arenas meticulously, and seem to have discovered that they are not as strong as they once were: during Operation Guardian of the Walls, Hamas, while suffering a substantial military blow, also had strategic accomplishments, such as strengthening its domestic image and inciting the Arab Israeli population; Iran did not suffer any considerable damage due to the aggressive steps it had taken in the Gulf (the dialogue between Iran and the international community on nuclear continues, and EU representatives attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new president); the launching of rockets from Lebanon was not met with harsh Israeli attacks or strong international criticism (although Hizballah had been vehemently criticized within Lebanon).
Statements made by Hamas, Hizballah and Iran recently attest to the change in enemy logic. Those made by Mohammed Deif or the commander of the IRGC, whereby they are interested in changing the rules of the equation with Israel, while warning the latter that it has lost the freedom of action it had once enjoyed, particularly stand out in this context. In other words, the resilience camp has made it clear that "routine" incidents such as friction in Jerusalem, attacks against Iranian targets in Syria or the maritime sphere, and military activity in Lebanon will all be met with a military response – albeit cautious and measured.
This series of events requires Israel to revisit the way it perceives its enemies' logic, and reassess their activity. Over the past several months there seems to be a gap between the Israeli assessment, whereby its enemies are deterred and strive to maintain calm vis-à-vis Israel, inter alia due to their own internal issues (the civil distress in Gaza; the crumbling of Lebanon; and Iranian attempt to improve its international standing), and actual events during which they take bold action that has already resulted in some surprises, such as Hamas' offensive initiative against Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls, or Hizballah's response to the IDF attack in Lebanon.
Israel's assumption that its adversaries are profoundly disinclined to enter a large-scale campaign is correct, however, at the same time, Israel is overlooking their willingness to take military action that they view as lower than the large-scale escalation threshold. This gap must be understood and internalized instead of getting dragged into relatively easy solutions such as coming up with explanations that the enemy has lost its discretion and become unpredictable, as recently suggested with regard to Yahya Sinwar.
Israel should notice the axis connecting these tense arenas which, while conducting themselves against separate backdrops, feature key actors that reflect similar logic, and even share a dialogue and learning processes. Israel must realize that, while its enemies do remain deterred from a large-scale campaign against it, they wish to examine whether its red lines may be redrawn. These dynamics could lead Israel – as well as its enemies – to a large-scale escalation that was unplanned and counters all involved actors' basic interests.
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