Bombing Gaza with an eye on Iran
Even as Israel unleashes the full force of its military might on its intolerable Hamas neighbours in the Gaza Strip, the attention of Israel’s leaders is concentrated a thousand miles in the opposite direction, towards Tehran.
Operation “Pillar of Defense” has the short-term aim of incapacitating the deadly military nuisance of Hamas rockets raining down from Gaza, but its strategic goal is to humble Iran’s proxy Palestinian militias, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to send a clear message to President Ahmadinejad that his dream of wiping Israel from the map with Iran’s soon-to-be-completed nuclear weapon will be much harder than he hoped.
In tactical terms, Iran has made it clear that an Israeli strike against its nuclear bunkers will trigger an immediate response from Tehran’s client terrorist groups on Israel’s front line. By silencing Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Israel will remove that threat from its southern border, simultaneously sending a message to Hezbollah in Lebanon, another Iranian creature, that their destruction will follow.
“Taking the time to root out longer-range rockets in Gaza could be viewed as a way of minimizing potential retaliation from there in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran,” says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
The style of Israel’s assault, and the careful comments of Israeli leaders tying the Gaza operation to Iran at every opportunity, is also designed to send a clear deterrent message to Tehran.
“Rather than build a better future for the residents of Gaza, the Hamas leadership, backed by Iran, turned Gaza into a terrorist stronghold,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv on Thursday, while the Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, accused Hamas of turning Gaza into “a forward base for Iran.”
Major Arye Shalicar, another Israeli army spokesman, said Hamas was now firmly acting in the interests of their Iranian sponsors instead of the Palestinians who elected them in 2006. “Things have to change here. The terror infrastructure, they have to understand, is just not worth it anymore. The problem is they are being sponsored, pushed and trained by the Iranian government,” he said.
The Israeli attack began with the brazen assassination, in broad daylight and in the centre of Gaza City, of Ahmed Jabari, commander of the Hamas Al-Qassam military wing and one of the most elusive and heavily-guarded men in Gaza. It was followed by the wholesale destruction of dozens of long-range Fajr 5 rockets and their covert network of underground launch pads, painstakingly constructed by Hamas in the past five years under a shroud of secrecy.
On Wednesday, Jabari was lured into the open by a sophisticated Israeli disinformation campaign and targeted in a pinpoint aerial strike based on the kind of accurate real-time intelligence that other armies can only dream of. Perhaps it was just a dress rehearsal for the main event. The implications for Iranian leaders are clear.
"At first glance, Operation Pillar of Defence seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel,” concludes Amir Oren, military analyst of Haaretz.
“A force which is able to strike against Ahmed Jabari would be able to pinpoint the location of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And a force that destroyed Fajr rockets would be able to reach their bigger siblings, the Shihabs, as well as Iran's nuclear installations,” says Oren.
Apart from the tactical issues, Benjamin Netanyhau sent a very personal message with the F15 fighter-bombers raining down destruction on Hamas targets in Gaza. Until this week, Netanyahu’s fearsome reputation as a dangerous, war-mongering hot-head was based on nothing more than words. In the six and a half years of his two premierships, he is the only Israeli leader in a generation who has pointedly refrained from sending his army into a major military campaign.
Netanyahu broke that duck this week, taking a huge political risk despite being in the middle of a re-election campaign. Recent predecessors who went to the polls after going to war – including Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – all lost their jobs.
Dan Harel, the Israeli army deputy chief of staff during Israel’s last invasion of Gaza in 2008, said Hamas and Iran had fatally misread the Israeli leader.
“Hamas has tried to change the rules of the game and used new weaponry over the last few weeks, including guided missiles,” Harel said. “Hamas felt they got enough power to stand face to face with Israel, especially in this very delicate moment of elections. They thought we were not going to retaliate. They were wrong.”
Until now, the Iranians could dismiss all Netanyahu’s talk of “Red Lines” and ultimatums about their nuclear programme as the barnstorming bluster of a man who had never led his country to war. From now on, the leaders in Tehran know that in Netanyhau they have a tougher, more determined, more battle-proven enemy than they previously believed.