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Israel's Fight to Regain Deterrence

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Israel is facing an unenviable challenge these days, to regain its deterrence in a chaotic neighborhood in which its enemies are feeling emboldened. As a direct result of the regional turmoil, Israel is dealing with the deterioration of security on two fronts simultaneously.

In the south, the time bomb that is Gaza has, once again, gone off. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and smaller assorted jihadi organizations have stepped up their attacks on IDF patrols along the border, through roadside bombs, missile attacks, and explosives-laden tunnels under the border.

When the IDF responds, the terror organizations seize on Israel's attempt to defend its soldiers as a justification to launch large-scale rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, and fire rockets at southern cities, towns, and villages.

In the most recent case, Islamic Jihad terrorists fired a sophisticated Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile at an IDF jeep patrolling the border, injuring four soldiers. IDF tanks stationed near Gaza returned fire, killing six Palestinians.

This was the development Palestinian terror factions had been waiting for. They fired more than 120 rockets at the Israeli south in just over two days. Their aim: To deter the IDF from carrying out vital security missions along the Gaza border.

While the Iron Dome anti-rocket shield has kept the major cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Be'ersheva relatively safe, intercepting many rockets, smaller towns such as Sderot and Netivot have absorbed wave after wave of rockets from Gaza.

Four Israeli civilians have been injured in this latest round of attacks, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis are living in a state of uncertainty and fear, their daily routine interrupted by the sounds of air raid sirens and the dash to a bomb shelter. The psychological trauma this is causing to the area's children is enormous.

How has Israeli deterrence hit such a low point since Operation Cast Lead of 2009? The answer can be found in Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood is now in power and is busy realigning Egypt with fellow Islamists in Gaza.

Gone are the days when Hamas's Gaza was an isolated enclave facing a hostile Egypt under Mubarak. Gaza's rulers know they are part of a new and rising bloc of Sunni Islamist states, led by Egypt, and joined by Turkey. Feeling emboldened by this shift, Hamas and its terrorist allies in Gaza are confronting Israel head on, firing rockets at will, and carrying out border raids every few days.

The terror factions in Gaza are banking on the idea that Israel will be deterred from responding appropriately due to the fear that this would endanger the peace treaty with Egypt.

The signs coming out of Jerusalem in recent days indicate that this assumption is wrong. The IDF has long been prepared for a major operation in Gaza - be it a stepped up air campaign against hundreds of terrorist targets, or an air campaign combined with a ground offensive - to lift the rocket menace hovering over southern Israel.

Such an operation could result in Hamas and Islamic Jihad - the latter being Iran's closest proxy in Gaza - attempting to fire long-range rockets at greater Tel Aviv.

But that would only encourage a more forceful Israeli response, one that could endanger the survivability of the Hamas regime, and cause serious damage to the operational branches of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Meanwhile, on the northern front, the IDF has fired on Syrian military positions twice in two days.

The first incident, on Sunday, began when a Syrian shell exploded near an IDF outpost on the Golan Heights - one of many recent similar episodes. In accordance with a plan drawn up by the IDF's Northern Command together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the IDF fired a warning shot, in the form of a highly accurate and costly Tamuz ground-to-ground missile, at a Syrian military position.

The next day, the Syrians failed to heed the warnings, and a second mortar shell exploded in Israel. This time around, the IDF directed tank fire at two Syrian army mortar positions, striking them directly.

This was more than a warning shot. It was an indication that Israel had lost patience with the continued violation of its sovereignty, and that the time had passed for verbal warnings, of the type that had been sent repeatedly to the Assad regime via the UN.

The ball is now in Assad's court. He can instruct his forces to use more caution when fighting rebels close to the Israeli border, or he can continue to disregard Israel's warnings, and risk an escalating Israeli response.

With the chaos currently engulfing Syria, it remains unclear how much control Damascus has over its armed forces. The possibility that Assad is seeking a limited provocation with Israel, to regain legitimacy in the Arab world and within Syria itself, also exists.

Either way, the danger of an escalation on the Syrian border has never been higher. The good news is that the IDF is fully prepared for such developments, having completed a vigorous and lengthy training program for its tanks, infantry, and artillery units that are stationed on the Golan Heights.

The developments on both the northern and southern fronts could not have occurred were it not for the Arab winter which has taken hold of the region.

The days of regional stability and an Egyptian-led Arab Sunni drive for calm are gone. With them, Israeli deterrence has also diminished.

Israel now has an uphill struggle to reinstate that deterrence, whether it is through a major operation in Gaza, or the protection of its national boundary in the face of a crumbling Syria.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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