With Israel’s new government barely a month old, tentative signs are emerging of renewed tension between the country’s political leadership and its military establishment.
Several news reports, based on apparently targeted leaks from the military’s intelligence and strategic planning branches — and perhaps the Shin Bet security service — suggest that the army’s senior command is alarmed at hard-line policies the new government is adopting toward the Palestinians. The army fears the government’s policies will strengthen hard-liners on the Palestinian side and could lead to increased violence, both in Gaza and the West Bank.
The first indication of tension came in an April 5 news analysis by veteran military correspondent Alex Fishman in the respected Friday Supplement of Yediot Aharonot. Titled “On a Low Flame,” the article reported that rookie Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was instituting a zero-tolerance policy toward rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Two earlier rocket attacks, coming before his watch and punctuating a long cease-fire, had received only mild diplomatic and economic responses. Yaalon’s new policy began with a bombing raid April 2 in retaliation for mortar fire earlier that day. Since then at least six more rocket attacks have been launched.
Israel and Hamas signed an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire last November, ending the eight-day conflict code-named Operation Pillar of Defense. The Shin Bet, Fishman wrote, had expected that the fighting, and the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari that ignited it, would seriously weaken Hamas. But the organization quickly recovered, and showed its muscle by enforcing the cease-fire. Israel, chastened, allowed two rocket attacks, on February 26 and March 21, to pass without retaliation, allowing Hamas to impose order. On April 3, Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen and IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot reported confidently to the security cabinet that they foresaw a quiet year ahead. But that was before Yaalon took command.
Fishman wrote that Hamas has been “working frantically” since Pillar of Defense to prevent rocket fire in order to bolster its tense relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel. The Brotherhood abhors Hamas’s flirtation with Shi’ite Iran. Within Hamas, therefore, the November cease-fire strengthened the hand of secretary-general Khaled Meshal, who favors a long-term truce with Israel to stabilize Hamas rule and improve its international image. All but one of the Gaza rocket attacks have been carried out by radical jihadist groups that oppose Hamas and reject any talk of truce.
Yaalon, however, doesn’t trust Hamas. He doesn’t believe rocket fire “is accidental or represents any ‘loss of control’ by Hamas,” Fishman wrote. “From his point of view Hamas — and the IDF and Israel as a whole — need to realize that a new broom has arrived” to sweep things clean.
Yaalon’s zero-tolerance policy, Fishman wrote, is a “gamble.” A bombing raid can be a deterrent, but it also “gives Hamas and the broader Arab world an excuse to pressure Egypt to ease its border controls and allow more weapons smuggling into Gaza.”