Operation "Guardian of the Walls": A strategic score, look toward the future, and policy recommendations
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | June, 2021
|Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit | CC BY-SA 3.0|
Operation "Guardian of the Walls" (May 10-21) is the fourth broad military campaign waged between Israel and Hamas within the last 12 years. Unlike past campaigns, Operation "Guardian of the Walls" broke out in the absence of security deterioration in the Gaza Strip and was initiated by Hamas.
The backdrop to this operation will not be found in the Gaza Strip, but in Jerusalem. In the weeks before it broke out, tension in Israel's capital soared due to clashes on Temple Mount and between local Jewish and Arab populations, as well as the charged crisis in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, all of which took place during the sensitive month of Ramadan.
Hamas began this campaign to achieve three main aims:
- Establish its position as leader of the Palestinian system while underscoring its auspices over Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as Gaza, and highlighting its being undeterred to take steps in Jerusalem's defense.
- Accelerate the decade-long attempt to set the West Bank ablaze in such a manner as to undermine Abu Mazen's regime and enable the promotion of yet another violent front against Israel.
- Establish a new strategic action equation between it and Israel, whereby it responds militarily from within the Gaza Strip to events taking place outside it.
The score between Israel and Hamas following the campaign naturally reflects an inverse mirror image. Each side's accomplishments, or most of them, reflect the other's failures. The score is comprised of an analysis of the actions taken on the military level, as well as the broad strategic context, including the public, political, international, and cognitive dimensions.
Hamas has concluded that the campaign score was mixed but leaning toward the positive, in its view. It therefore counts its accomplishments alongside some lack of success or even failures:
- On the strategic level: Hamas estimates that it has strengthened its status and image domestically, thereby progressing toward its desired goal – to establish its role as a leader in the overall Palestinian system.
- On the military level: Hamas is highlighting its rocket-related accomplishments, particularly its ability to launch a large number of rockets toward central Israel simultaneously. However, several failures also stand out: its underground array was severely damaged; its ability to promote terror attacks against Israel using the tunnels was thwarted; a significant portion of its rocket launches were intercepted by Iron Dome; and the movement was unable to advance terror attacks at sea, in the air or in cyberspace.
- Vis à vis the West Bank: Hamas successfully caused a significant rise in regional tension, but was unable to lead to continued conflagration across the board ("a third Intifada").
- Vis à vis the internal Israeli arena: the widespread uprising that erupted in Arab Israeli society may be defined as an "incidental" Hamas success – it was not defined as an operation goal but evolved during it, and is now being perceived as a strategic achievement.
- Vis à vis the Arab and international arena: while Hamas was widely supported by audiences in the Arab world and Muslim communities in the West, it also struggled to garner support from Arab governments, let alone Western ones.
Israel's score also contains impressive accomplishments alongside some lack of success:
- In the strategic dimension: Israel was surprised early on in the campaign when Hamas took initiative, but its powerful response contributed to renewed deterrence directed at the Palestinian group.
- In the military dimension: Israel caused severe detrimental harm to Hamas' military array, demonstrating remarkable defense capabilities of its civil space using Iron Dome and its neutralization of the tunnels; however, it failed to impact the Palestinian group's top echelon.
- Vis à vis the domestic arena: although the acute outbreak in Israeli Arab public was fed by fundamental trends that were not directly linked to the Palestinian system, an unprecedented affinity was struck between the two arenas that may manifest itself in similar outbreaks in the future.
- Vis à vis the West Bank: an exacerbation was registered in popular conflicts and the number of terror attacks across the West Bank; however, a broad outbreak did not take place, and the basic differentiation between this area and the Gaza Strip was maintained. The fundamental desire shared by the majority of the Palestinian public and PA that the fabric of life and government stability be preserved was thus demonstrated.
- Vis à vis the Arab and international arenas: Although Israel was harshly condemned by the Arab world, no severe crises were created, such as the returning of ambassadors or severing of diplomatic ties, and the relations with the "Abraham Accords" states remained intact. While widespread public protests developed in western countries, mostly led by local Muslim communities, most governments, including the American one, displayed understanding and even identified with Israel.
At present, Israel should be guided by several goals:
- Reinstating security calm in the Gaza Strip and restoring deterrence vis à vis Hamas.
- Maintaining the differentiation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and preserving the general quiet in the West Bank.
- Thwarting Hamas' potential "head rearing" in the West Bank on all levels.
- Neutralizing the affinities between the events in the Palestinian system hubs and those in Arab Israeli society.
- Making genuine progress in the matter of the POWs and MIAs.
- At least for the time being it seems that there would be little benefit in discussing the toppling of Hamas' regime, as there are no prospective alternatives that could fill the governmental void in the Gaza Strip, including the Palestinian Authority.
At present, Israel would do well to take the following recommended steps:
- The question of the understandings between Israel and Hamas in Gaza Strip: the recent campaign largely reflected the collapse of the understandings perception developed over the past two years, the underlying assumption of which was that an ongoing improvement in the civil reality in the Gaza Strip would hone the price of the loss in the eyes of Hamas, and reduce the possibility that it will promote escalation against Israel. Now Israel is facing two alternatives: to reach new understandings that will be accompanied by Israeli impositions, primarily progress on the matter of the POWs and MIAs; or avoid understandings to allow Israel freedom of action.
- Stabilizing the West Bank: the damage caused to the Palestinian Authority's image following the recent campaign requires Israel to take action to maintain stability in the West Bank, including: comprehensive promotion of civil projects; responding to the requests of the Palestinian apparatuses so as to strengthen their force buildup; and an ongoing effort to prevent Hamas' strengthening in the West Bank.
- Examining the continued Qatari impact on the Palestinian system: it may take some time to find another country willing to replace Qatar in providing civilian assistance to the Gaza Strip, however, in the overall score it is becoming clearer that the Qataris are not helping to restrain Hamas but are, in fact, contributing to the stabilization of its rule in the Gaza Strip.
To conclude, Operation "Guardian of the Walls" has demonstrated that, not only can Israel not afford to keep ignoring the Palestinian arena, but that not addressing its fundamental issues is making them grow until they erupt in ways that jeopardize Israeli interests in other arenas both internally and externally.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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