Israel gambled on a morale boost, but it looks like Hamas’ military chief got away

Amos Harel — Haaretz August 20, 2014

Israeli air strike on Gaza City. Click to enlarge

Israeli air strike on Gaza City. Click to enlarge

The most interesting question in the region at the moment concerns the identity of the third person who was killed Tuesday in the Israel Air Force attack on the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza. Israel attempted to kill Mohammed Deif, head of the Hamas military wing, and succeeded in killing his wife and young son. Amid the ruins of the building, which belongs to a Hamas rocketry expert, the corpse of a third individual was found, a man in his 50s. Was this Deif or the owner of the house? Hamas is not saying at this stage and Israel does not know for certain, but this morning the chances that Deif was killed in the attack appear slim.

Throughout Operation Protective Edge Hamas has not revealed information about its losses, even when this had to do with activists from the ranks in battles with the Israel Defense Forces. It is likely that on Tuesday evening initially the organization suspected Deif had been hit and therefore they responded with a relatively heavy barrage, which included the unusual firing of Iranian-made Fajar rockets aimed at the south and the center of the country. The firing this morning has been a bit milder in extent, but Hamas isn’t volunteering any additional information.

It will no doubt take at least another few hours before the picture becomes clear. The last time Israel tried to kill Deif, on July 12, 2006, it was only four months later that Israeli intelligence knew for certain that he had been wounded in the attack and not killed.

From the perspective of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the attempt to assassinate Deif had one main goal: to give Israelis a cause for rejoicing. Deif is indeed a key figure in the Hamas hierarchy but it is very doubtful that killing him would have quashed the whole organization’s fighting spirit. It is worth remembering that the two people who lead Hamas in the Gaza Strip today – Deif and Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the political leadership in Gaza – took up the leadership after Israel assassinated their predecessors (Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi from the political wing and Ahmed Jabari, whose assassination brought Deif back to head the military wing).

Assassinations are considered achievements that can be marketed to the public. Usually, they do not change the strategic situation in a fundamental way. But Deif is a symbol to the Palestinians and of late also to the Israelis. His death could have been considered a moral victory, thereby helping Netanyahu fend off the increasing criticism, both among the public and in the political arena, of the partial results of the war in the Gaza Strip.

On the basis of similar assassination actions in the Gaza Strip in the past, presumably the final approval for the attempt was given within a window of opportunity that lasted for a few hours. Intelligence brought information about Deif’s presumed location, the operational level put together methods of action and the leadership gave its approval. From Israel’s perspective, these things happened at a convenient time: a few hours after the Palestinians violated the cease-fire (which was to have ended Tuesday at midnight) and three rockets from Gaza landed in an open area near Be’er Sheva. Therefore, the assassination attempt cannot be considered an Israeli violation of the truce. It does, however, bring us with greater force back into a violent military clash with Hamas.

The negotiations in Cairo had failed even earlier. Israel was seeking a “slim” formula that would achieve a prolonged cease-fire for it without any substantial concessions on its part. Hamas wanted a meatier agreement that would give it the lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip (including the promise of a seaport), without it committing to disarming itself of rocketry. The Egyptian proposal leaned toward Israel but nevertheless exposed Netanyahu to criticism at home because it was perceived (in the right wing of his government and also among some of his more moderate ministers) as entailing excessively heavy concessions.

Hamas had an additional problem. Egypt insisted on blackballing Qatar, which is hosting political leader Khaled Meshal. According to reports on Wednesday morning in the Arab media, via Meshal Qatar pressured the Hamas leadership in Gaza to prevent the formulation of an agreement without it.

The renewed firing on Tuesday apparently presages a continuation of the fighting, at least for several days.

If Deif indeed got away – thereby reinforcing the myth surrounding him as someone who has survived at least five Israeli attempts on his life – then Netanyahu has a problem. The political pressure on him to show achievements will only increase. His critics among his ministers will demand renewal of the ground forces’ action, even though Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon would much rather not send soldiers back into the Gaza Strip.

Alongside the Egyptian effort to achieve an agreement, an alternative effort is expected to kick into gear via the United Nations Security Council. However, in addition to the substantive gaps between Israel and Hamas, there are two other obstacles to obtaining an agreement. One has to do with the drift of international attention to the situation in Iraq and the military achievements by the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria. The other, which is connected, stems from the decline in American motivation to help with a solution.

Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama administration in general and the White House in particular are at an all-time nadir. Secretary of State John Kerry sees himself as someone who tried to help Israel and took a beating here through no fault of his own. It is doubtful he will rush to volunteer again to pull the negotiations out of the mud. On Tuesday, in Cairo and in Gaza, things once again got entirely out of control. At the moment, it is not clear how it will be possible to restore calm.

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