Tensions are once again escalating on the border between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel. What started with explosive-laden balloons has given way to the firing of rockets and even riots at the Israel-Gaza border fence. Once again, such activity is disrupting the lives of Israeli communities near the border. And once again, Israeli officials appear to lack sufficient and decisive answers. This round, however, exhibits some unique characteristics that require a deeper analysis.
Israel is in a midst of a potential political crisis. The country may be headed to a fourth round of elections in less than two years. Among other things, the coalition is at odds over the government's budget. The COVID-19 crisis, meanwhile, continues to hinder the Israeli economy, with unemployment now hovering around 20 percent. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are eager to implement a new five-year plan that would revolutionize their existing force posture. However, implementation is impossible without a stable government and budget.
The recent explosive balloons sent into Israel from the Gaza Strip have the IDF on high alert. Israel's leaders have threatened to respond with force to any provocation, but Hamas appears undeterred for now. Hamas, in fact, appears poised to escalate further. The group's more militant leaders, particularly Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, seek to weaken their political rival Khaled Mashal in advance of elections in Gaza. The terror group also seeks to exploit the current political environment in Israel, pushing the Israeli government to coordinate with the government of Qatar to increase long-term funding and aid to Gaza (perhaps through 2021) in exchange for quiet.
The Hamas calculus has a certain logic to it. Israel's top priorities remain Lebanon (with Iran always in the background) and Syria. However, Israel's leaders are unlikely to allow Hamas to dictate the rules of the game. The IDF, if pushed, has vowed to respond decisively, even if the attacks are low-tech. There is little difference between an explosive balloon and a missile. Should the balloons inflict casualties, the Israeli public will demand a harsh response. In fact, there is a growing sentiment in Israel, especially after the recent uptick in Hamas attacks, that the IDF must reestablish deterrence by way of a decisive message to Hamas.
As a defensive measure, the IDF has deployed a tactical laser system to shoot down the balloons. Some believe this is overkill. However, the laser deployment is not a significant departure from deploying Iron Dome to neutralize crude rockets fired by Hamas. The relatively safety afforded by these defensive systems could provide the Israeli leadership with some time and space to respond in a way that is designed to reestablish deterrence but also contain a wider conflagration.
But using lasers against the balloons may not go far enough. Targeting the balloon operators could be one way of reestablishing deterrence – and would not be dissimilar from Israel's longstanding policy of targeting Hamas operatives that fire missiles. Still, by targeting the balloon squads, there exists the potential for escalation – something the IDF seeks to avoid.
On Israel's northern border, the situation is more complicated. The Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah has recently attempted to exact revenge for Israel's reported military strike that killed one of its operatives in Syria. Thus far, Hezbollah's efforts have been thwarted.
The August 4 explosion at the Beirut Port further complicated the situation. Speculation continues to fly about Hezbollah's possible involvement in stockpiling the ammonium nitrate that killed more than 200 Lebanese and left thousands homeless.
Even as protestors take to the streets to vent their anger at Hezbollah, the group's military posture vis-à-vis Israel has not changed. If anything, Hezbollah's leadership may mistakenly believe that Israel would not reciprocate, due to the delicate political situation in Lebanon after the explosion
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet seek to disabuse Hezbollah of this notion and have reiterated Israel's longstanding policies. First, Israel has zero tolerance for Iranian or Hezbollah military forces on Syrian soil. Moreover, Israel has zero tolerance for Hezbollah's terrorist activity anywhere on Israel's northern border. Finally, Israel has declared zero tolerance for advanced weapon systems, such as precision-guided munitions, in the hands of Hezbollah. The IDF continues to vow that there will be a harsh response if Hezbollah crosses any of these red lines.
The state sponsor of both Hezbollah and Hamas is, of course, Iran. The Islamic Republic could dispatch either group to attack Israel at any time. But Tehran appears to be treading carefully as it waits to see whether a possible removal of President Donald Trump from the White House could alter the "maximum pressure" policy that has sent Iran's economy into a tailspin. Those economic woes have been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting global recession.
The Iranians would probably prefer to keep Hezbollah's weapons arsenal intact for a future conflict with Israel. But Hamas is less of a strategic asset. It is for this reason that the IDF is keeping a close eye on its southern border. From the IDF's perspective, all of Iran's proxies should fear a conflict.
Israel is now actively weighing its options to negate the various attacks coming out of Gaza – from rockets and riots to explosive balloons. Egypt could play an important role and has sent a delegation to Gaza to mediate. UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov is also looking to play a role. Should they fail, Israel would once again be on its own. Even with tensions rising on its northern front, the IDF may have no choice but to reestablish deterrence and quiet by military means.
Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as acting national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at FDD and a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.