Israel vs. Hamas: Undermining deterrence

By Charles Kirchofer:

Israeli soldiers in Hebron [Photograph taken by the author, 5 June 2014.]

Israel’s military response to the abduction and murder of three teenaged Israeli citizens, which has included a massive deployment of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories, is understandable. But, this response has threatened to undermine what had been a relatively stable deterrence relationship with Hamas, however. The border with Gaza had been reasonably quiet, but recent days have seen increased rocket fire that has now hit homes in southern Israel. Israel’s military is now shifting troops to the Gaza border. Together, these actions threaten to be the start of another round of escalation between the two sides. Was this deterioration of the situation inevitable? If a ceasefire soon comes into effect, what does this say about Israel’s deterrence relationship with Hamas?

Despite Hamas’s anti-Israel Charter and its unrelenting stance against recognising Israel or even accepting the idea of a permanent peace with it, Hamas has avoided provoking active conflict with Israel since 2012. There has been a trickle of rockets from the Gaza Strip, but this has long been the case. What’s more, it does not appear that Hamas itself was responsible for any of these attacks until just recently. In fact, Hamas has long arrested militants launching rockets from within Gaza to prevent Israeli retaliation. The fact that the number of rockets launched in 2014 has at times risen above 20 per month may, in truth, be more a sign of Hamas’s weakness than of its strength: Egypt has tightened its control over Gaza’s southern border, closing smuggling tunnels that Hamas relied upon for much of its revenue, and Hamas’s relations with its sponsor Iran have been strained since it declared itself opposed to Iran’s close ally and Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and moved its headquarters out of Damascus. Even now, Hamas’s leadership has said it does not desire escalation, despite recently launching its first rockets on Israel since 2012.

If Hamas activists are proved responsible for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, this in itself would already indicate a massive escalation, justifying a retaliatory response from Israel. Hamas internal chief Ismail Haniyeh allegedly said as recently as this April that abducting Israeli soldiers was a ‘top priority’ to use as ‘bargaining chips’ to free Palestinian prisoners. When three Israeli teens were reported kidnapped, justified suspicion quickly fell on Hamas. Hamas’s leaders denied all knowledge of the kidnapping even as Israeli security claimed to have found solid evidence of the group’s involvement. Reports have now come to light that suggest that both are ‘correct’. It seems the kidnappers are a ‘rogue Hamas branch’ that was not acting on orders when it abducted the teens. The fact that the teens were quickly murdered rather than held for ransom and that Hamas from the start denied responsibility and was unable to reap any political or strategic gain from the incident lends credibility to this claim. It thus seems that the attack was a criminal act motivated by sectarian hatred rather than a terror tactic used as part of a plan to improve Hamas’s bargaining position with Israel or the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Israel’s military response, named ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’, has been calibrated on the assumption of the latter rather than the former. Israel detained over 300 Hamas members and some other Palestinians not associated with the group, also raiding Hamas institutions. A report noted that ‘soldiers entered Palestinian cities and towns in numbers not seen there in years, which led to frequent violent clashes with Palestinian youths. Five Palestinians [were] killed by soldiers’ fire during the clashes. Only a few of those detained are suspected of actually participating in terrorist activity.’ A Palestinian academic commented to this author and asked “Don’t you think Israel is using the disappearance [of the three teens] as a pretext to go after Hamas?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated openly that attacking Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank was a central aim of ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’.

From a deterrence perspective, this could be an appropriate response if Hamas as an organisation were indeed behind the murders of the three Israeli youths. It would help to reinforce clear ‘red lines’ that Hamas may not cross without inflicting significant damage on itself. If Hamas is already deterred and did not commit the murders, however, such a broad attack on it is not necessary to maintain or re-establish deterrence. What’s more, unnecessarily forceful responses are risky. The operation has stirred up anger among the Palestinian population, for example in several clashes with Israeli troops, which resulted in the death of five Palestinian youths. These deaths have naturally intensified anger and threaten to escalate the situation further. Israel’s air force also struck targets in Gaza. In response, Hamas then launched its first rockets since 2012 at Israel on 30 June. Further violence is possible.

The recent escalation was not inevitable. If Hamas as an organisation was not behind the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens that sparked this latest round of violence, the escalation also does not appear necessary. There have been discussions today of a possible ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but at the time of writing, one had not yet taken effect. Both sides appear willing to de-escalate, however, with an Israeli official saying that ‘quiet will be met with quiet’.

If things do quiet down, this will be evidence that Hamas is weak and deterred. If they do not, we will look back on Operation Brother’s Keeper as understandable, but we may also view it as a mistake that led to further unnecessary bloodshed.


Charles Kirchofer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is currently researching the use of deterrence against non-state actors using the case of Israel’s conflict with Hamas and has recently conducted field research in Israel and Palestine. You can follow him on Twitter @CPKirchofer

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