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Israel-Hamas ceasefire

15 November 2018 Jack A. Kennedy

On 13 November, a ceasefire was agreed between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, after two days of heavy exchanges of fire between the two sides.

  • The ceasefire arrangement is likely to hold with the support of Hamas and Egyptian mediation.
  • The ceasefire arrangement increases the likelihood that the right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet will resign in the one-month outlook.
  • Hamas probably avoided escalation because its rocket barrages did not result in more Israeli fatalities, as this would have been almost impossible for the Israeli government to pass without a major military response.

On 11 November, a probable Israeli intelligence gathering incursion into Gaza was detected and subsequently engaged in a firefight with Hamas forces, during which an Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed, as well as a commander of Hamas's Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) covered the extraction of the remaining Israeli forces with airstrikes on strategic military targets throughout Gaza; Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad unsurprisingly retaliated with a barrage of rockets and mortars into the communities around southern Israel, firing at least 460 rockets and mortar bombs during a 25-hour period. This was the highest number of rockets that had been recorded fired from Gaza in a single day and the most extensive Israeli airstrikes inside Gaza since the 2014 war.

The Iron Dome missile defense system reportedly intercepted more than 100 projectiles, with the remainder landing in open fields, highlighting the managed risk to Israeli commercial activity from Gaza-based rocket fire into southern Israel. One individual, who has since been identified as a Palestinian, was killed, and 65 Israeli citizens were injured; substantial damage was caused to some residential properties within 10-15 km of Gaza, including Ashkelon, Netivot, and Sderot. Flights into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport were temporarily redirected on 12 November; public transport faced suspensions and delays in southern Israel for the duration of the rocket fire; and a curfew was enforced on local businesses for two days.

Israel's security cabinet has reportedly agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the UN special envoy. This probably followed the 2014 ceasefire agreement, where a managed reduction in the rocket fire from Gaza would be met with Israeli restraint.

Hamas still avoiding broader escalation with Israel

Hamas used this latest round of violence as a calculated opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities to Gaza-based hardliners and its broader political opponents since the decision to commit to organized mass protests along the Gaza-Israeli border in March 2018. Notably, on 12 November, Hamas released a video of a Kornet guided missile attack on an Israeli bus near the Gaza border, wounding an IDF soldier. This was the first recorded use of such a weapon by Hamas since the 2014 Gaza war. The Kornet missile is capable of penetrating the armor of Israel's Merkava Mark 4 tanks. In addition to messaging to its Palestinian rivals inside Gaza and elsewhere, IHS Markit assesses that the weapon's use is intended to highlight the potential cost of any Israeli ground operation into Gaza in light of the build-up of Israeli forces near the Gaza-Israeli border.

A Hamas spokesperson on 12 November was also clear that the scale of rocket attack could be stepped up substantially in the event Israeli air and artillery strikes were sustained and expanded to include broader Hamas civic and military infrastructure. However, any attempts by Hamas to utilize longer-range weaponry, such as the stockpiled Fajr rockets or M-302 rockets with 150 km range, as it did in 2014, would have almost certainly provoked a broader Israeli ground response, given the greater destructive damage and the subsequent risk to major Israeli population centers, including Ashdod, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. The fact that Hamas only threatened to do so and checked the more hard-line factions within its military wing indicates continued commitment to at least protecting the status quo with Israel rather than provoking broader war.

Israeli restraint

During the military escalation between 11 and 14 November, the Israeli government and IDF operated within the existing expectations to avoid a full-war situation with Hamas in Gaza. Although the Israeli military carried out airstrikes on about 160 separate targets in Gaza, it targeted primarily strategic targets with military or political value to Hamas, rather than resorting to targeted assassinations of Hamas's senior leadership or hospitals more typical of a war scenario.

Israel is aware that such a move would have incurred a high casualty rate and prompted impossible-to-ignore demands for further escalation from within Hamas's military wing and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In addition, for the duration of the rocket fire, Israel maintained the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing for goods and fuel supplies into Gaza, part of the pre-existing status quo. This would have also provided Hamas with the incentive to arrange an immediate cessation of rocket fire without having to contain protest or retribution from Gazans subsequently deprived of electricity and medical support.

Israeli cabinet divided

The Israeli security cabinet was reported to have agreed to terms of a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians and the United Nations, despite cabinet divisions. The agreement was supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was almost certainly seeking to avoid a ground operation in Gaza, given the likelihood of politically unpopular military casualties and the high cost of attempting to end Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip; achieving the latter would require Israeli occupation.

Israeli media reported that a ceasefire arrangement was opposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has since resigned on 14 November. Lieberman had publicly called for much stronger military action against Hamas during the past month. Other right-wing members of the Netanyahu's ruling coalition also reportedly opposed the deal, including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett - both members of the Jewish Home party.

Lieberman's resignation, along with his five Knesset members, does not end Netanyahu's ruling coalition majority, which currently has 66 of 120 parliamentary seats, but will substantially weaken it. The ceasefire arrangement increases the likelihood that more right-wing members of Netanyahu's cabinet will resign.

Outlook and implications

The ceasefire arrangement is likely to hold with the support of Hamas and Egyptian mediation as well as support from major Palestinian Gulf-based donors, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. We assess that Hamas's leadership will be able to present the Israeli intelligence operation's retreat from Gaza with casualties, the use of advanced weaponry, and the swift agreement to avoid further escalation as a political and military victory to its support base.

Hamas's senior leadership have probably correctly assessed that Netanyahu is unwilling to commit ground forces to Gaza for a prolonged punitive operation and risk a larger salvo of rocket fire into Israel outside a war scenario. However, this was a high-risk move, given the current uncertainty around the future composition of the Israeli government and pressure from the Israeli right wing on the prime minister. Hamas was fortunate that its rocket barrages did not result in more Israeli fatalities, because this would have probably placed the prime minister under an almost impossible-to-avoid pressure for further military escalation.

We assess that Netanyahu is likely to call early elections in the first half of 2019 and will probably avoid the potential fall-out of a politically costly sustained ground force intervention into Gaza with uncertain outcomes before then.

Netanyahu has prioritized building closer diplomatic and commercial relationships with Gulf states, with these efforts becoming more overt during these past six weeks; escalation in Gaza would have almost certainly undermined his efforts to build the foundation for closer Arab-Israeli commercial co-operation, even if an actual peace deal remains a remote possibility during the coming year.

Closing the crossings and preventing Qatar from maintaining open lines of financial support would be a key indicator for another round of punitive strikes by Israel. Likewise, should the IDF authorize the call-up of infantry reservists for deployment along Gaza, a longer duration of confrontation would be expected.

Posted 15 November 2018 by Jack A. Kennedy, Senior Analyst, Country Risk – Middle East and North Africa, IHS Markit


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