MS Risk Blog

Israel’s May 2023 Gaza Operation: Tactical Success, But Strategic Situation Unchanged

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The five-day clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last May can be considered a tactical success for the Israeli side. The fighting and subsequent ceasefire also affirmed Egypt’s crucial mediating role and Hamas’ reluctance to directly confront Israel. Still, since Israel’s Palestinian adversaries retain significant capabilities and none of the root causes of Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been addressed, while the security situation in the West Bank keeps deteriorating, a new round of fighting will almost certainly break out again in the coming months.

On 2 May, Khader Adnan, a senior member of the militant Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, died in Israeli custody after an 87-day hunger strike. PIJ and other armed groups in Gaza retaliated by firing more than 100 rockets into Israel, which responded by shelling and launching airstrikes against targets in Gaza. Then, on 9 May, Israel started a new operation against PIJ, with surprise airstrikes that killed three top PIJ commanders. This triggered a new major confrontation between Israel and PIJ. From 9 until 13 May, Gaza-based militants fired 1,469 rockets against Israeli targets, while Israeli forces struck 371 PIJ targets, eliminating three more PIJ leaders. On 13 May, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire through Egyptian mediation. Overall, 33 Palestinians died during the fighting, including 18 PIJ operatives, while 2 people in Israel were killed due to rocket strikes, one of whom was a Palestinian worker from Gaza.

This was the third round of fighting between Israel and PIJ, the previous two taking place in November 2019 and August 2022, respectively. Like the ones before, it lasted for a few days before a ceasefire was agreed. Examining this latest clash, four observations can be made:

First, Israel’s operations once again demonstrated the strength of its offensive and defensive capabilities. The opening strike killed three of the most high-ranking PIJ operatives within minutes. With three more subsequently killed, an Israeli report said that the “backbone” of PIJ’s structure in Gaza was significantly weakened. As for defense, Israel’s Iron Dome and (for the first time) David’s Sling air defense systems intercepted 439 rockets or about 91% of those heading for populated areas. The rest either landed in open areas without causing damage or fell into the Gaza Strip or the sea. According to Israeli officials, the campaign’s goal was weakening PIJ, an objective they said was achieved. Although PIJ and other Palestinian armed groups, such as Gaza-ruling Hamas, as well as their supporters Iran and Hezbollah, also praised their efforts as successful, it is hard to see how that was the case. According to reports, during Egyptian-mediated negotiations, PIJ set several conditions for a ceasefire, including an Israeli commitment to stop assassinations of its members and the release of Adnan’s body for burial. But the final ceasefire agreement was a mutual promise to stop firing and it came without any other conditions, as Israel demanded. Thus, the operation can be considered at least a tactical success for Israel.

Second, as in the past, the ceasefire negotiations again affirmed Egypt’s crucial role in mediating Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has been a critical partner for Israel. Apart from Cairo’s role as a mediator, Egypt and Israel work together on jointly blockading the Gaza Strip, as Egypt’s ruling regime shares Israel’s fears about subversive forces in the region. On the other hand, cooperation with Egypt is indispensable for Gaza-based Palestinian armed groups too, since Cairo controls the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only entry and exit point not controlled by Israel. It has also been a major aid contributor, while Egyptian intelligence has good working relations with armed factions in Gaza. Its mediating role makes Egypt a critical partner not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for other states and organizations involved in the region. After the ceasefire was agreed, Egypt’s mediation efforts were praised by Israel, PIJ, Hamas, the US, and the United Nations.

Third, Hamas stayed out of the recent fighting, as it did in August 2022, showcasing its reluctance to directly confront Israel. Although Hamas officially coordinates with PIJ and other Gaza-based armed groups, its assistance to PIJ was limited to statements of support. This is mainly due to the different perspectives and responsibilities of PIJ and Hamas. PIJ does not participate in politics and is solely focused on military confrontation with Israel, seeking to eliminate the Jewish state and replace it with a Sunni Islamist entity. On the other hand, Hamas is the de facto ruling government of Gaza, having expelled its rival Fatah and seized control of the enclave in 2007, and is thus held responsible for its population’s safety and well-being. During its fourth and so far last conflict with Israel in May 2021, Hamas suffered severe casualties and Gaza was devastated. If the group was dragged into the latest PIJ-Israel clash, the fighting would have significantly escalated, inflicting much more misery on Gaza’s population and risking important Israeli concessions to Hamas, such as its permission for Qatar to transfer $30 million to Gaza every month, or Israel’s work permits for around 20,000 Palestinians from the area. By staying out of the fighting, Hamas achieves multiple objectives. It focuses Israel’s attention on PIJ, letting Israel weaken a potentially dangerous rival and thus strengthening its own grip on power. It presents itself as a more responsible political force in the context of its competition with Fatah. And finally, it keeps its own capabilities in Gaza intact while more discreetly operating against Israel through its cells in the West Bank. It can be argued that Israel’s strategy of powerful deterrence and economic incentives has constrained Hamas to a certain extent. As long as Hamas behaves in a restrained way, Israel actually prefers that it stays in power in Gaza, since its weakening would bolster the more extremist PIJ.

Fourth, despite being tactically successful, the campaign likely didn’t significantly change the overall balance of power, nor did it eliminate the root causes of the conflict. PIJ very likely retains its capability to renew fighting at a later stage, with its total force estimated at around 10,000 militants. Israeli reports have said that PIJ’s leadership structure was seriously hit due to the loss of six commanders, but they concede that PIJ was not dealt a catastrophic blow. Hamas’ force of approximately 40,000 fighters remained intact, while the much more powerful Hezbollah lurks across the northern border in Lebanon. The threat from Gaza, and Israel’s concerns about encirclement from pro-Iran forces in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, remain. More broadly, Israel’s tactical success did not address the fundamental drivers of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Israel’s far-right nationalist government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expanding settlements in the West Bank and inching toward a de facto annexation of the territory, while government members indulge in inflammatory rhetoric against Palestinians. The security situation in the West Bank continues to deteriorate, with hundreds of Palestinian terrorist attacks already in the first four months of 2023. Israeli forces continue their near-daily operations in the occupied territory, with at least 160 Palestinians killed since the start of the year. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) led by President Mahmoud Abbas is rapidly losing popularity among the West Bank’s Palestinian population and its security forces are weakening, enabling PIJ and Hamas cells, along with numerous other armed groups, to proliferate and establish a presence in the region. And the Palestinians remain hopelessly divided between the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank and Hamas’ regime in Gaza, unable to speak with one voice.

It is thus almost certain that a new round of fighting will break out in the coming months. Diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians have seemingly reached a deadlock, with neither side being willing nor capable to reach a negotiated settlement. In these conditions, escalation followed by crisis management seems the most likely course of action.