One significant bright spot that stands out against the barrage of challenges is that Israel does not currently face any significant conventional military threats from sovereign states as it did in the past. The security threats to Israel today primarily emanate from terror organizations that operate from an ambiguously defined political entity (Hamas), or from within failed states (Lebanon and Syria). These enemies are asymmetric in strategy and increasingly hybrid in nature. They choose to operate from within densely populated civilian areas with murky political sovereignty. Knowing they cannot defeat Israel militarily, they opt for a three-pronged approach: forcing Israel into complex and often urban territory where much of Israel’s conventional advantage is neutralized; fighting from within civilian areas that force Israel to restrain its firepower and when fire is used, to harm enemy civilians; and manipulate the international media once civilians are hurt to damage Israel’s international standing and increase international pressure on her. So while the threat to Israel’s national security from a military perspective is diminished, the challenges from asymmetric warfare are ultimately more complex, and not going to disappear any time soon.
Hamas – “Operation Protective Edge” ended (26 August, 2014) without a decisive defeat of Hamas. Israel was able to cause significant damage to the organization’s military infrastructure, destroyed many of the terror tunnels, severely damaged civilian infrastructure, and was able to intercept with the Iron Dome ballistic missile defense system most of the rockets aimed at Israel’s civilian population centers. However, Hamas was able to withstand 50 days of fighting while continuing the rocket fire on Israel’s cities, including Tel Aviv, throughout the entire period. Hamas even succeeded in shutting down Ben Gurion Airport to foreign airlines for a day.
The promises of reconstruction have yet to be translated into reality in Gaza. Its residents are becoming frustrated and many of them describe themselves as having nothing to lose. Hamas’ relations with Turkey and Qatar are not making up for the loss of support of other countries Hamas had been accustomed to in the past. Hamas is attempting to resurrect its relationship with Iran, and even with Hezbollah, to break the current isolation forced upon it after its leadership was expelled from Syria (due to its support for the Sunni rebels), and the conflict with the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt (after overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood – Hamas’ parent organization). Egyptian pressure on Hamas, combined with the delays in Gaza’s reconstruction, increase the chances of another outbreak of Palestinian violence against Israel from Gaza. Indeed, Hamas is working to rebuild its tunnel system, is conducting rocket fire tests, and is generally preparing for its next conflict with Israel. (The threats on the Southern front are not only limited to the Gaza Strip. Terror elements in Sinai who have already committed terrorist attacks against Israel could return to attempting to strike Israeli targets.)
At the same time, the Arab press is reporting on disputes between the military and political wings of Hamas in regards to the possibility of an indirect long-term ceasefire with Israel. In exchange, Israel is expected to refrain from steps that would complicate economic reconstruction in Gaza and ease the naval blockade currently in place. The military wing prefers developing its relations with Iran, and may try to prevent such a deal by executing an attack on Israeli targets.
Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria – The continuation of the political paralysis could lead to a deterioration in the security situation in Judea and Samaria, and even to a third intifada, not necessarily identical to the previous ones. Experts assess that Israel could end up facing a wide-spread civil disobedience campaign combined with popular violence not necessarily coordinated by a central actor. A warning sign for this mode of action could be seen in the violent events in Jerusalem that erupted in June 2014, following the search effort and arrests in connection with the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teens by Hamas terrorists. The chaos increased significantly after the immolation of a Palestinian teen by Jewish extremists (July 2, 2014). The sharp rise in terror attacks in Judea and Samaria and in Jerusalem during Operation Protective Edge teaches us about the potential of outbreaks of violence in these areas. The massacre of four Jewish worshippers and a Druze policeman who came to their rescue by Palestinian terrorists (18 November 2014) is a worrying indication as well. Various initiatives by right-wing activists to change the status quo on the Temple Mount have also added to the already tense atmosphere (and also upset the Jordanians).
Hezbollah – Hezbollah’s support of Assad hurts the organization’s standing in the Arab world, and especially in Lebanon. A few thousand Hezbollah fighters are operating in Syria alongside Syrian troops. Hezbollah conceals the number of fighters it’s lost in Syria, but the number is most likely around 1,000 to date. This reality undermines Hezbollah’s claim that its military capabilities are meant to protect Lebanon from Israel. Hezbollah fighting on behalf of the despised Assad is seen as taking the Shia side against the Sunnis and pulls the rug from under the feet of the image Nasrallah has been working to build for so many years, that Hezbollah works in the interest of all of Lebanon’s citizens. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has turned Lebanon into a theatre of battle in Syria’s civil war and has led to domestic bloodshed and instability. Hezbollah, which has remained deterred from opening a front with Israel, has been restrained from responding to occasional attacks connected to Israel meant to take out strategic arms transfers from Syria and on storage sites of advanced missiles that are smuggled from Iran through Syria and on to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A significant and severe event happened on January 18, 2015 when Israel struck a convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Imad Mughniya’s son, Jihad, (Imad Mughniyah was the commander of Hezbollah’s military wing, and was killed in 2008 in Damascus in an assassination attributed to Israel and the U.S.), was among the dead as was an Iranian general. In response, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an IDF vehicle patrolling the border with Lebanon, killing two soldiers. The incident exposed a joint Iranian-Hezbollah effort to reclaim territory Assad lost to the rebels in 2014 in southern Syria and in the Syrian Golan Heights, and expand the possible confrontation ground with Israel. Hezbollah’s efforts to continue arming with advanced Iranian and Syrian weapons, and Israel’s dogged efforts to thwart them, could lead to an escalation, revenge terrorist attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, or even another war. Hezbollah could even decide that only a violent confrontation with Israel could return its lost support in Lebanon and the Arab world.
Moreover, the fact that Assad has recently lost control over a number of towns could signal to Hezbollah that it will soon lose its critical logistical bridge to Iranian arms. Fears such as these could lead Hezbollah to incite an escalation with Israel. Hezbollah has over 100,000 rockets, many of which can reach deep inside Israel and are far more accurate than those Hamas fired during Protective Edge. Hezbollah chief Nasrallah has even threatened that in the next conflict with Israel, his fighters will fight on Israeli territory, and some are even concerned that Hezbollah may be working on constructing its own terror tunnels from Lebanon to the Galilee. Rational assessments of Hezbollah’s situation indicate that the organization has no interest in opening an additional front with Israel. Its forces are fully engaged in Syria, where their losses of life and morale are heavy. However, one cannot disregard the possibility of an unintentional escalation with Israel that may lead to another war, contrary to the “rational calculations” of both sides.