Insecurity along its borders has led Israel to wall itself from its neighbours. Elisabeth Marteu looks at how this profound siege mentality has compounded Israel’s deadly response to Palestinian protesters.

IDF battalion in southern Israel. Credit: IDF/FLICKR

By Elisabeth Marteu, Consulting Senior Fellow for Middle East Politics

Since 1948, Israel has been striving to legitimize its presence in the Levant while the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has prevented the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations. One of its existential preoccupations has been to protect its territory from external threats emanating potentially from Arab armies, non-state armed groups spreading throughout the Middle East and more recently from Iran and its allies. Israeli borders have always been disputed, neither the status of the Golan Height in the north, the West Bank in the east, nor the Gaza Strip in the south have been definitively and peacefully defined and settled. Moreover, despite the signature of peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, Israel has remained surrounded by a highly volatile and unsecure environment, as could be seen with the outbreak of the 2011 Arab revolutions that led to political changes in Cairo and an ongoing deadly war in Syria.

Since the beginning of the Syria conflict, the Israeli northern border has been closely monitored to contain the spillover of the fighting and a possible clash with Hezbollah and Iran’s allies. At the same time, on the southern area, the Sinai-Gaza-Israel triangle has become a long-term security concern due to an unprecedented jihadist threat. Finally, the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians is sinking and could violently explode at any time in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Gaza. Therefore, the state of Israel is enjoying an undeniable military superiority in the Middle East but is driven by a profound siege mentality.

Fragile Northern Border with Iran's Allies in Lebanon and Syria

Israel’s northern border has remained fragile since the 2006 war against Hezbollah which killed nearly 1 500 people in thirty-four days. Since then, the Shiite movement has gained considerable political legitimacy and military capabilities in Lebanon, and an unprecedented fighting experience throughout its support to the Assad regime in Syria. Tel Aviv is convinced that the Lebanese movement will sooner or later undertake attacks against its territory. Since 2012, the Israel defense forces have regularly stroke Hezbollah’s and Syrian regime’s facilities and stockpiles. But it has tried not to be swept into the war limiting itself to ensuring the red lines were not crossed: no weapons-smuggling to Hezbollah, and no Hezbollah or Iran affiliated groups’ installations in the vicinity of the Golan Heights. The road to the end of the conflict is long and risks of escalation still remain. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) on 8 May and to re-impose sanctions on Iran could flare additional violence in the region. Few hours after the American President’s announcement, Israel launched unprecedented extensive strike on Iranian targets in Syria in response to Iranian rockets attack on the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, the Golan Heights has become a convenient shelter for Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime, including Jihadi groups affiliated to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, as the IS affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed which is located in the Yarmouk Valley straddling Jordan, Syria and Israel. So far, these groups have not attacked Israel, since they have been busy fighting each other or the Syrian regime. But their presence may represent a growing challenge.

Unsecure Triangle 'Sinai Peninsula-Gaza-Israel'

The chaotic situation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the unstoppable jihadist activity in the Sinai Peninsula constitute endemic threats for Israel. Despite Egyptian military operations and Israel’s intelligence and military support (including air strikes and drones), Egypt has failed to stop jihadist terrorism in Sinai. Even though Egypt has deployed significant efforts to destroy smuggling tunnels with Gaza, Wilayat Sinai (which pledged allegiance to IS in 2014) has continued to carry out deadly weekly attacks against police and military forces but also against civilians including the Christian community. As the priority of Sinai jihadists is to destabilize the central power in Cairo by leading national guerrilla warfare, Israel is not a priority target. However, jihadist groups have launched attacks against Israel, as in 2011 when they undertook a deadly attack near Eilat, or in 2017 when they simultaneously claimed responsibility for firing rockets into the Israeli Negev and for attacking the Egyptian army near al Arish.

In Gaza, the security situation has remained fragile since the latest conflict in 2014. The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas has been in a stalemate as Hamas refuses to disarm and to lose its military superiority, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reluctant to enter into concrete negotiation with the Islamic movement as he will be unable to withstand the economic and humanitarian suffocation of the Gaza Strip. Therefore, clashes have continued between Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli army, and several rockets have been fired towards the south of Israel. Tensions have been reaching a new peak since 30 March 2018. The Israeli army has shot dozens of Palestinians who have protested along the fence as they are carrying out a 46-day protest in commemoration of the ‘Land Day’ and the ‘Nakba’. Palestinians are trying to revitalize non-violent popular resistance to disrupt Israel’s political and military strategies. The deadly repression conducted by the army shows that Israel is durably considering Gazans as hostile enemies.

The 'Nation under Siege' Trauma

Although Israel has been largely immune from the 2011 Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions’ domino effect, it feels surrounded by a multifaceted menace posed by both Shiite and Sunni armed groups. This leads Israel to consolidate a security cordon with Egypt and Jordan, to rely on the United States to ensure its qualitative military edge and to seek new partners in the Gulf to contain Iran’ influence. This unpredictable environment has exacerbated the siege mentality and has led the country to wall itself from its neighbors, by building fences and walls at the border with Egypt, the West bank and Lebanon. However, these unilateral decisions have often been criticized as building fences on disputed lands has been considered as an aggression or even an occupation.

Seventy years after its creation, Israel is still obsessed with border security. However, its pro-active diplomatic campaign against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is neglecting one core concern: Israel’s inability and reluctance to improve its long-term vital security by fixing just and sustainable borders with the Palestinians and thus by securing a peaceful two-state solution.

This article first appeared at l’Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale

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