Earlier this month, the Israeli Defense Forces sent jets into the Gaza Strip, surgically targeting Hamas military sites in the coastal enclave. The IDF operation was a response to rocket fire from Gaza toward southern Israel earlier that day — an attack, according to reports, that the IDF suspects was perpetrated by Islamic Jihad. In punishing Hamas, the IDF was reestablishing previous rules of engagement with the terrorist organization: Hamas will have to restrain other terrorist actors in Gaza or pay a price.
The rocket attack from Gaza followed the death of two senior terrorist operatives in the West Bank: Muhammed al Saadi, a member of Islamic Jihad in Jenin, and Na’im Zubeidi from the Fatah-linked al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Al Saadi and Zubeidi were killed in an exchange of fire during an early morning IDF arrest operation in Jenin this month. The IDF and the Israeli Shin Bet security agency stated that both gunmen were responsible for carrying out previous shooting attacks against Israelis. Israeli media later reported that al Saadi “masterminded” the abduction of an Israeli citizen’s body — whether the person was already dead is a matter of dispute — from a Jenin hospital the previous month.
Following the clashes in Jenin, Israel braced for rocket fire from Gaza after both Islamic Jihad and Hamas threatened to respond. The anticipated attack arrived two days later in the form of a rocket from Gaza fired toward Israeli territory — thus prompting the Israeli air strikes on Hamas assets, including a tunnel and a rocket production site. This response was consistent with the rules of engagement established under former (and presumed incoming) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who maintained a policy of holding Hamas accountable for all terror emanating from the West Bank.
However, in August of this year, under Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Israel decided to break with that long-standing policy. During Operation Breaking Dawn, an intense 66-hour conflict between the IDF and militants in Gaza, Lapid made the strategic decision to deal Islamic Jihad in Gaza a powerful blow without engaging with Hamas.
During Breaking Dawn, Gaza militants fired over 1,100 rockets at Israel, and the IDF eliminated Islamic Jihad’s senior leadership. At the time, IDF spokesman Ran Kochav told reporters the IDF struck some 140 Islamic Jihad targets across the Gaza Strip, targeting military assets and the terrorist group’s top leadership. Importantly, the IDF made the decision not to target Hamas during the operation as long as Hamas stayed out of the fighting.
Hamas has a history of demonstrating greater tactical restraint than other militant groups in Gaza. It has even been willing to rein in Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups when it benefited from doing so. Such behavior has caused friction among competing militant groups, with Islamic Jihad leveling heavy criticism at Hamas for staying out of the fighting in August when it was being pummeled by Israel.
Despite Hamas’s ability to stay on the sidelines during Operation Breaking Dawn, the IDF’s recent attack on Hamas marks the second time since August that Israel has returned to the policy of targeting Hamas in response to attacks assumed to be carried out by other terrorist groups in Gaza. The IDF used the same playbook in November, when terrorists also launched rockets into Israel. Although no faction took responsibility for that attack, the IDF responded by targeting a Hamas weapons cache in the Mediterranean enclave.
By surgically targeting Hamas assets in Gaza in response to rocket fire in November and December of this year, the IDF is making it clear to Hamas that Israel has restored its previous policy of deterrence. Hamas will pay a price for any terror emanating from Gaza, whether or not it had a direct hand in the attack.
Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Israel Program and the FDD National Security Network at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Enia on Twitter at @EKrivine.
Joe Truzman is a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow him on Twitter @JoeTruzman.