Determinants of Major Battles
How Have the Palestinian Factions Responded to Single-Target Strategies?
Last week, we witnessed a military operation led by the Israeli occupation forces on the Gaza Strip. They claimed it was in response to missiles launched by Saraya Al-Quds, the armed faction of the Islamic Jihad movement, in retaliation for the death of the movement’s leader, Khader Adnan, in the occupation’s prisons. Since Tuesday dawn, Israeli airstrikes targeted the homes of three leaders in Saraya al-Quds, leading to their death along with their families. Following this, the Palestinian armed factions responded with heavy bombardment targeting occupied cities and towns from the Gaza envelope all the way to Tel Aviv.
From the outset, the Israelis tried to adhere to the model they are now using for the third time, which involves individually targeting one of the Palestinian factions exclusively. They constantly assert that the operation is aimed only at this faction and sternly threaten should any other group join the battle alongside Saraya al-Quds – specifically Hamas. This has become a difficult question in the Arab public sphere and a challenging issue for political analysts, who see in this situation an attack on the cohesive structure of the resistance that had formed since the first war on the strip in late 2008. This question and the fear of a splintering of the Palestinian front, allowing the occupation to single out one faction from another, have arisen since the initial targeting of Jihad in November 2019, after Saraya al-Quds responded to the targeting of its leader, Baha Abu al-Ata, by an Israeli strike on the strip. This was a battle in which Hamas and its military wing did not participate, and the usual military momentum did not appear, neither in the Jihad’s strikes nor in the occupation aggression. It was even suggested that Hamas pushed towards calming the situation and preventing its escalation.
Here, analyses started talking about an intensive Israeli effort to dismantle the Palestinian front by individually targeting each of its movements. This, I believe, was indeed an apparent goal highlighted by the military maneuvers and media statements that focused and intensified their efforts in showcasing Hamas and other factions kept away from the battle. There were no clear statements about adopting the battle by the joint operations room, while there were political statements from all factions and political leaders inside and outside the strip supporting the Jihad movement and condemning the assassination operation.
Back then, analyses suggested that the battle led by Jihad, which Hamas did not participate in, was one of the manifestations of Iran’s efforts to develop the strength of the movement at the expense of Hamas, especially after the latter’s strained relations with the Syrian regime and its diminished standing with Iran as a result. Others examined Hamas after the release of its document in 2017, which they saw as significant concessions by the movement on its historical positions, most notably its recognition of the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. At this point, hypothetical projections began to emerge in public opinion, such as comparing this trajectory to that of Fatah, which had retreated from resistance towards political understandings. It was thought that Hamas would follow this direction, and Jihad would become the new Hamas. Some attempted to construct a virtual life cycle for struggling movements that begins with struggle and ends with politicization, negotiation, and ultimate concession.
It can be said that such assumptions cannot be isolated from the Arab sentiment at the time, which was loaded with feelings of despair and disappointment produced by the phase of fragmentation of many Arab states after the revolutions, counter-revolutions, military coups, and armed conflicts. This feeling was reinforced by Trump’s arrival to power with a project aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause, followed by the normalization process and the criminalization of armed resistance. This led to the idea of weakness and the necessity of making concessions as a possibility in the minds of those following the Palestinian scene. This assumption can be said to have been forcefully refuted by the Palestinian factions in general, and Hamas in particular, during the battle of “Saif Al-Quds” in 2021.
Reading the reasons for the Palestinian factions’ involvement or non-involvement in a certain battle, away from the intense emotional load displayed by the analyses at the time, especially in major battles that need to be studied through objective determinants that cannot be overlooked, is important. These factors include the prevailing international situation, Arab conditions, the internal Palestinian context, the situation within the Israeli government, and the internal situation of the factions themselves. Looking at these determinants in 2019, we can highlight a number of points:
- The International Context:
The first determinant to consider when entering a war with the Israel is assessing its circumstances with its allies, foremost among them being its most important ally, the United States. It is worth noting that Hamas, since taking control of the Gaza Strip, has not entered any major battle except during the tenure of a Democratic president. Despite the shortness of this period, an observer can see the extent to which Hamas has gone to control its reactions during Trump’s presidency, who was first leading a systematic campaign in the world under the title of “fighting Islamic terrorism”, as well as leading a systematic campaign to liquidate the Palestinian cause.
In addition to this, he was adopting an unusual American behavior in dictating the Western opinion without regard for his traditional allies in Europe, which began with his withdrawal from the climate agreement and pressure on the Europeans in major economic files, which led them to adopt a cautious behavior with him. This means that the supportive reactions to the occupation from the United States in the event of a war on Gaza were not expected or calculated, and betting in this space was extremely risky.
In addition, there was significant pressure on global public opinion, especially the official one, limiting the elevation of the political cost on the occupation in its battle. This would mean an undisciplined aggression in terms of brutality and destruction.
- The Regional Context:
The Palestinian factions relies heavily in its war on the extent of support coming from its regional allies. A quick look at the region at that time reveals that both military and diplomatic support were at their weakest. From tensions with the Syrian and Iranian regimes to the collapse of the Sudanese regime, which was one of the most important suppliers of weapons or at least its transit passages, then the closure of tunnels from the Egyptian side and tightening control in the Red Sea on smuggling operations, it can be said that the supply lines’ conditions for the factions in the Gaza Strip were not in favor of entering a major war.
In addition, Hamas’s regional situation among Arab countries has never been this deteriorated before. From preventing its leaders from entering several Arab countries, their arrest and expulsion from their allied countries under Israeli-American pressure, and an almost complete break in relations with Egypt, the factions in Gaza did not possess the critical degree of communication and necessary diplomatic depth in war, which could pressure the occupation or open communication channels during the battle, especially regarding ceasefire implementation.
Finally, one of the aspects of the battle is the psychological and morale dimension, and the media support provided by highlighting the Gaza Strip during the war. It rallies public opinion in its favor and exerts pressure on the Arab political regimes to move in this direction, as well as on regional and international public opinion. However, the Arab region was then in one of its most tumultuous moments in North Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and other Arab countries, even on the Jordanian scene.
In the closed rooms of politics and diplomacy, it can be said that no one was free to look at a war in Gaza as usual, which would leave the factions relatively exposed in its war. The confluence of crises and conflicts in the region at that time would have made it more difficult for any significant attention or support to be directed towards the situation in Gaza.
- The Israeli Internal Context:
One of the most important characteristics of war is that it is a hated phenomenon that prompts severe criticism of its cause in stable societies. On the other hand, it is the historical recipe for unifying disturbed societies and rallying their ranks. Reading the political context in Israel since 2019, it can be said that Israel is going through one of the most turbulent moments in its history. After the failure to form a government several times consecutively, war would have seemed like a saving option for Israelis, unifying their ranks and serving as an election campaign for the various right-wing currents at the same time.
This means transforming the war into a brutal military show and using every possible means to exaggerate it in order to patch up the internal Israeli situation. I believe that such a choice, if it can be avoided, is close to suicidal.
- The Palestinian Faction’s Arsenal and it’s Sustainability:
Given the circumstances that the Gaza Strip is living through, including what we previously mentioned about the disruption of military supply lines for the factions Gaza, the option of war cannot be the first choice. In fact, it is almost always the last resort. Similarly, once this option is chosen, it is not possible to return to it in a short period of time before undertaking efforts to replenish supplies and rearm.
Here, it’s not appropriate to compare this to the wars of 2012 and 2014, each of which occurred during the Arab Spring with an unprecedented openness of supply lines to the Gaza Strip, especially with the presence of Mohamed Morsi as the president of Egypt. This was one of the most important elements of qualitative development in the Palestinian weaponry at the time. This is another determinant that the resistance tries to preserve in each of its battles, which is the presence of a qualitative development in each battle from its predecessor, indicating that the factions are not standing still. This sends a strong political message to the Israelis and mobilizes public opinion around Hamas.
These determinants, along with the human and material cost to be paid when entering major wars with the occupation, are among the most important factors that guide the management of the battle by the join operations leadership. If we look at all these options, we can assess the chances of going into a major battle with the occupation.
According to these determinants and when trying to apply them to the situation that the world was going through in 2021, it can be said that the first determinant, international relations, was characterized by the absence of Trump, a significant disagreement between Netanyahu and Biden, and the general fatigue of the Western world from dealing with a right-wing government. Additionally, the existing situation in Jerusalem and the Sheikh Jarrah crisis brought together both popular and official Arab and international opinion towards Palestine for a long period of time. It even mobilized Palestinian public opinion within all of Palestine towards one issue.
Furthermore, the relative calmness that the world was experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relative relaxation in several regional files, and the passage of nearly 7 years since the last battle (indicating a comfortable war stockpile), all created an opportunity for the factions in Gaza. This opportunity was not only to enter a battle in response to an aggression on Gaza, but it also provided the chance to respond to a clash with the occupation outside the borders of Gaza, launch a quick battle, and deliver a strike that was influential on the occupation on several levels.
Moreover, the existence of a qualitative development in the Palestinian weaponry and the explosive power of the warheads at the time were also significant factors. Added to this battle is that the resistance managed to impose a new reality regarding the nature of the war, as a result of increasing the efficiency of its strikes, it forced the occupation to adopt a more cautious and precise policy in bombing, instead of the methods that the occupation followed in previous wars. This was clearly evident in the number of martyrs, where the number of martyrs decreased significantly each day of the war compared to previous battles.
In the same context, if we look at the following year when similar circumstances occurred in Jerusalem, Hamas was unable to enter another battle during or after Ramadan, despite the threats issued by the movement’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, at the time. It seems that he was unable to mobilize the movement behind the option of going to battle again just one year after a major battle in which the 4,000 rockets in 11 days were launched from Gaza, half the number launched in the long-lasting conflict that extended for about 51 days. This indicates that the movement needed time to replenish its military arsenal after an escalation of this magnitude.
In fact, Sinwar faced widespread criticism both inside and outside of Hamas in regards to his statements, which were described as putting the movement in a situation it didn’t need to reach. The movement cannot ignite a war every time a group of settlers invades the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. This is based on the principle of lack of capacity and possibility, not the principle of lack of reason or need. Although the invasion event is politically and morally harmful, responding to it with war is not a constantly available option, especially with the large numbers of civilians who become victims of these battles.
Months after Ramadan events, the Israeli forces assassinated a group of leaders of the Islamic Jihad in August 2022. Despite the situation seeming confused at the beginning of the battle due to the lack of readiness for a large-scale battle according to the determinants we mentioned earlier, where the situation seemed similar to the battle of 2019, it seems that under this examination, they were able to develop a reasonable formula for dealing with assassinations and Israeli strikes.
This formula was not entirely convincing or satisfactory at first, and it cannot be said that it has developed significantly later, but the perspective towards it seemed more acceptable over time. This formula was clearly and consistently adopted by the joint room of the Palestinian factions, reflecting the position of the movement directly involved in the battle, and it also adopted its military operations in the media.
However, this statement was relatively advanced compared to the escalation in 2019, where the position of the joint room came a little late and coincided with statements from Nakhala saying that the battle was led by Jihad and it is responsible for it, before the leaders of Saraya Al-Quds rectified these statements after the battle saying that the operation was managed with understanding and coordination between all factions.
It should be noted here that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) called for an urgent meeting after the escalation in 2019 to evaluate the performance of the Palestinian resistance, which indicates that the situation raised questions within the resistance movements. It didn’t go far until the joint room of the factions’ coordinated maneuvers, the first of its kind, in which about 11 factions in Gaza participated in 2020. This indicates an agreement on the need to take practical steps in developing the role of the joint factions’ room.
Despite the Israeli occupation’s diligent attempts to use targeted attacks on one faction without another to destabilize the Palestinian front and reduce the cost of battle for itself, it appears in one way or another that the occupation has become entangled in more than that as a result of the factions’ relatively positive response to the individual operations and attempts to benefit from them.
It can be said that although the Palestinian factions found this targeting a real threat to their unity at first, they found in this option an option that they could benefit from in the same way that the occupation wanted to benefit from it, and to a greater extent. The other factions carry out coordinated strikes with the faction that entered the battle, and somehow provides it with some logistical and technical supplies, secretly or to an extent that does not push the occupation to consider it a partner in the battle.
In reading the objectives of the resistance in the battles and the results they achieve; it can be said that these goals can be achieved by supporting a faction instead of entering a widespread war. For example, one of the most important achievements of the factions in different battles is to disrupt daily life in the settlements and occupied cities and bring the settlers down to shelters, or disrupt air traffic, which happens by launching 100 rockets or launching a thousand rockets. Both will activate the alarm sirens and push for an emergency state, which happens by launching advanced and costly rockets or launching less costly rockets, especially on the settlements of the Gaza envelope.
Raising the number of casualties among the settlers cannot be a logical option for the Palestinians (at least currently), as in the battle of Saif Al-Quds 2021 and after the launch of more than 4000 rockets, the Israeli casualties were about 16, a number that is not proportional at all to the missile intensity. At the same time, several sites estimated the cost of the battle on Israel to be more than $2 billion, without calculating the cost of the disruption of daily life.
Most importantly of all this is the morale battle in which the resistance tries to instill a factor of anxiety and instability in the Israeli settler. I do not say that missile intensity does not have an impact, but this impact requires a huge shift in the number of rockets to be tangible.
All these achievements, from disrupting air traffic by striking Tel Aviv, disrupting daily life around Gaza and within a 40-kilometer radius of the sector’s borders, and forcing citizens into shelters, have already been accomplished during a battle that lasted for five days last week at a cost incomparable to its predecessors in terms of human and material costs in Gaza. It seems that the occupation has found great harm in condensing the military operation, especially with the factions dealing with it in this way, especially since a large part of its operations were primarily dependent on the amount of damage inflicted in Gaza in general through human casualties and the destruction of infrastructure to convince its popular bases of the sternness of its army and its actions.
It can be said that this type of operation may be convincing for leftist and liberal currents among the settlers, as shown by the opinions and comments of Yair Lapid, for example, during the recent operation where he recommended ending the operation quickly and being satisfied with the achievement made. However, a government like Netanyahu’s does not find much benefit in a battle like this, and it seems to have banked on the entry of other factions into the confrontation to expand it and tried to provoke Hamas with a threatening discourse if it participated in an attempt to embarrass it with its bases.
Meanwhile, without Hamas’s participation, and especially after the reality imposed by the battle of the Sword of Jerusalem in terms of international pressure on the occupation, it remains compelled to this type of tactical and specific operations with few casualties, which it tries to benefit from in splitting the Palestinian front, which the factions appear to be striving to overcome. I do not say here that it has avoided all its risks, but it does not allow the occupation to benefit from it as it wanted, and it also tries to benefit from it as much as possible.
The tactical, specific battle for the occupation is also tactical and specific for the factions. However, due to the nature of its goals, what it achieves here is not much less than what it achieves in a widespread battle, while the costs are significantly reduced.