Tunnels in the Gaza Strip, a wave of terrorism across Judea and Samaria, Islamic State attacks in Sinai, the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah's improved arsenal, the future of Iran's nuclear program and the stability of the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes -- these are only a few of the challenges facing the Middle East, and Israel within it. The only common thread running through these challenges is their uncertain nature.
The individuals trying to dispel this uncertainty are members of the intelligence community, who are tasked with assessing the situation and laying the groundwork for Israel's operational and diplomatic recourse.
Ahead of the Passover holiday, the heads of the four research and analysis divisions in the Military Intelligence Corps -- A., of the Palestinian intelligence unit, S., of the Lebanon unit, R., of the regional and world powers unit, and E., of the northeastern unit, which oversees Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- offer Israel Hayom an exclusive glimpse into the threats and opportunities current Middle East dynamics present.
Military Intelligence once comprised many research divisions, but the regional dynamics, compounded by the ever-changing cybersphere and budgetary restraints, have resulted in the current formation, in which five divisions -- four theater-oriented units and one providing them with technical support -- essentially monitor the entire world.
Gaza Strip: Volatile deterrence
Historically speaking, the Gaza Strip has never been quieter. Still, Hamas is pursuing a steadily intensifying armament effort, as evident by the terror tunnel recently discovered under the Israel-Gaza border, even if Military Intelligence believes this was an old passageway, dug before Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Strategically speaking, Hamas is feeling the crunch. Egypt has turned its back on the Islamist group and now sees it as no better than Islamic State, and its Saudi and other Arab patrons have more urgent matters that require funding. Iran remains Hamas' main sponsor, but the money and weapons it supplies come with a price, as Tehran is pushing Gaza's rulers to choose between Shia Iran and Sunni Syria. Arms deliveries to the enclave remain complicated, with Egypt cracking down on the smuggling routes, leaving Hamas more isolated than ever.
While the current situation in Gaza is not very different than the circumstances that preceded Operation Protective Edge, Hamas remains deterred and it is not seeking to provoke a security escalation. This policy stems not only from its strategic isolation, but mostly from concern for the Palestinian people: They currently have to endure growing unemployment rates and some eight hours of daily blackouts due to the enclave's power crisis, making it difficult for Hamas to generate support for a fresh round of hostilities.
Despite its isolation, Hamas is able to maintain a thriving arms industry. Once dependent mostly on weapons that were smuggled into Gaza, Hamas now locally manufactures most of its own weapons, using local know-how and materials, albeit lower-grade ones.
Hamas' internal dynamics remain complex, as the Gaza-based political and military branches try to find their balance opposite Qatar-based political leader Khaled Mashaal.
The latest operative to rise through Hamas ranks is Yahya Sinwar, 54, who spent 22 years in an Israeli prison for the 1988 murder of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, and was released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange deal that secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
Military Intelligence believes there are three scenarios that could prompt a change in the situation in Gaza: a shift in Hamas policy, a decision by the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades to instigate large-scale violence, and continued escalation.
The first scenario may see Hamas reach its limits in terms of its political isolation and Gaza's economic crisis, which may prompt a desire to mark some sort of achievement opposite Israel, most likely in the form of abductions. Nevertheless, intelligence assessments say chances of this scenario becoming the preferred course of action are low.
The second scenario, also believed to be unlikely, sees Hamas launching a pre-emptive strike against Israel. This may happen should Hamas, for example, feel Israel now possesses the ability to completely eradicate its grid of terror tunnels -- a major strategic asset it may decide to use before it is lost.
The third and most disconcerting scenario sees the familiar dynamics of security tensions escalating into a full-blown conflict.
The fact that Hamas is currently uninterested in a conflict or, to be exact, would prefer to be the one to choose its timing, does not mean Gaza's rulers are not ready for it. Even now, Hamas is able to order and carry out raids on Israeli communities adjacent to the border, fire rockets, and carry out terrorist attacks.
Hamas is most likely eyeing a raid as the attack that will spark its next war with Israel -- a gambit so bold, so jarring, that it will leave its mark, regardless of the results of the fighting that follows. This is the driving force behind its offensive and defensive tunnel enterprise.
Judea and Samaria: Desperately seeking leadership
It is impossible to ignore the dramatic decline in the number of terrorist attacks across Judea and Samaria in recent weeks. This does not necessarily mark the end of the torrent of violence, but rather the effects of IDF operations in the sector combined with other elements. One must remember that this was essentially a spontaneous wave, and it may erupt anew at any time.
This is why even the Palestinians refer to the events of the recent months as a "surge" rather than an intifada -- an uprising that is usually more organized in nature.
In terms of predicting the future for intelligence gathering, Palestinian youths remain the wildcard. No longer an apathetic generation, they have become the generation that rebels against everything -- the Palestinian Authority, Israel, their parents and the large Palestinian organizations -- making them very difficult to decipher.
Still, the numbers are small. The majority of Palestinians have opted out of the cycle of violence, so intelligence assessments focus on the young, rather than the Palestinian public as a whole.
In the broader sense, the current wave of terrorism is chipping away at the systemic order that has characterized Judea and Samaria since 2007, when Hamas violently seized the Gaza Strip and drove Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas out.
The Ramallah-based regime positioned Abbas as a strong, sole leader, whose Fatah movement is part of the government. This has undercut Hamas infrastructure across Judea and Samaria, keeping the Palestinian frustration under control for the most part.
But the carefully crafted fabric of Abbas' regime is fraying at the seams. With no apparent successor, the Palestinians are left to ponder the question of the post-Abbas era, and a complex succession battle is almost certain.
While various individuals duke it out over the Palestinian presidency, Hamas may try to seize the strategic opportunity presented by the leadership vacuum and seize control of the West Bank. Hamas is aware of the ebbing surge in violence and would like nothing more than to push for an escalation that would drag Israel into a large operation in Judea and Samaria.
The holidays are always a volatile time, as religious elements, such as on the Temple Mount, come into play, alongside large number of civilians touring the sites, making easy terrorism targets.
The main concern is that any escalation will force the Palestinian security forces and Fatah's military wing to turn against Israel, instigating a fundamental change on the ground. While chances of that happening are slim as long as the Palestinian political system in the West Bank is stable, a renewed surge in terrorism or succession battles could undermine this delicate balance, making continued Israel-Palestinian security collaboration a primary interest for both sides.
To a large extent, the security collaboration compensates for the absence of a peace process. Abbas opposes violence not because he shies away from the sight of blood, but because he understands that it plays into Israel's hands. The Palestinian leader is pursuing a different strategy, one focused on undercutting Israel on the international stage. Abbas may no longer believe he can deliver on his promise to declare an independent Palestinian state, but he does believe that mounting international pressure on Israel can take its toll, making the conflict too expensive for Israel to maintain and pushing it into a compromise.
Syria: A light at the end of the tunnel
International efforts to end the fighting in Syria have led to a change in Israeli intelligence assessment concerning our war-torn neighbor to the north. Gone are the prospects of prolonged bloodshed with no end in sight; enter tangible chances of a diplomatic agreement that will end the fighting in a way that would make Syria a functioning nation again.
This move, however, is expected to take months, if not years, and it is dependent on multiple variables. It is unclear whether Syria will be divided into ethnic federations or autonomous entities, nor is it clear who will control it. Much like the situation in the Palestinian Authority, Syrian President Bashar Assad has no clear successor, and his rule will most likely be followed by a coalition of interested parties that may, for the first time, include sects other than the Alawites.
Any arrangement in Syria will have to include Russia as the keeper of the Alawite, Iranian and Hezbollah interests, as well as its own. Russia seeks to preserve its military presence in the Middle East, its international status versus the U.S., its economic interests in the region, as well as prevent Islamist terrorism from finding its way onto Russian soil.
Assad's army has gained some ground recently, but it continues to rely heavily on Russian and Iranian aid. There are currently over 10,000 Shiite militia operatives fighting alongside the Syrian army, as well as some 1,500 Iranian soldiers, thousands of Hezbollah operatives, and significant Russian forces. Russia also directs some of the fighting, mostly against Islamic State.
American and Russian operations have curtailed Islamic State's geographical reach, and have dealt the jihadi group's financial infrastructure debilitating blows. This has dulled Islamic State's air of invincibility and has diminished its recruiting rates. Islamic State has been struggling to keep its momentum, and this pressure was most likely the reason for the recent terrorist attacks in Europe.
There is no clear intelligence suggesting Islamic State has set its sights on Israeli or Jewish targets at this time, nor is it likely to instruct the Nusra Front, its Syria-based proxy, to attack Israel -- not because its lacks the operational ability, but because it has more urgent priorities, namely to gain ground in Syria.
The losses Islamic State has suffered in Syria make for a tangible possibility it could be defeated even without foreign military presence on the ground. The group is likely to find it difficult to retake areas that have been liberated, and the more crippled it is, the greater the likelihood of reaching a deal that would end the fighting in Syria.
Another change that has now become evident is that while it is clear Islamic State will not be overrunning Syria, Iran will not be tightening its grip on it, either. The Israeli aspiration to rid Syria of any Iranian influence may not be realistic, but any future deal will include an Israeli demand to curtail the delivery of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, delay, as much as possible, the rehabilitation of the Syrian military, which has sustained significant blows during the last five years of civil war, and devise a mechanism that would ensure calm on the Golan Heights.
Lebanon: Hezbollah to the rescue
The Syrian civil war has exacted a heavy toll from Hezbollah, with over 1,300 operatives killed and nearly 10,000 injured while fighting alongside Assad's forces. Still, the Shiite terrorist group is heavily invested in the war, and 7,000 of its operatives are currently fighting -- and defeating -- the rebels.
The conflict has placed Hezbollah on the "right" side of events for the first time, as it is truly trying to defend Lebanon. But while this has also afforded the organization significant operational experience, it has placed a financial yoke around its neck right when Iran, which is facing its own financial crisis, cut its funding by about 15%. Nevertheless, Hezbollah is diligently preparing for its next clash with Israel, and it is investing considerable resources in acquiring long-range missiles that could both wreak havoc on Israel and generate deterrence.
In the decade since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has grown bigger and stronger, and after years of exercising restraint opposite a variety of operations attributed to Israel, Hezbollah is ready to retaliate should it suffer a blow it perceives as damaging to its assets or prestige. Hezbollah is willing to overlook certain strikes provided it can save face, but if its reputation is at stake it is willing to risk an escalation.
Reluctant to spark an actual confrontation with Israel, Hezbollah makes sure any retaliation will be within the acceptable "rules of the game," meaning against military targets and mostly in the Har Dov sector. Still, the concern remains that a series of mutual blows will breed the kind of escalation that could easily spiral out of control.
Meanwhile, the Shiite terrorist group's longtime collaboration with Iran on attacks against Israeli and Jewish target overseas is declining. Hezbollah seeks to establish itself as a legitimate part of the political sphere in Lebanon, and it is wary that global attacks will make the international community paint it the same colors as Islamic State.
Iran: A threat unchanged
Since Iran and the West inked their nuclear agreement last July, Israeli intelligence has had no indication that Tehran has overtly violated the deal, but it is clear the Iranians are flirting with the possibility, walking the fine line between what they can and cannot do.
Still, something has clearly changed: Iran has been welcomed back into the international community, and it is highly unlikely it will risk its newfound benefits in the near future. This focuses the intelligence challenge on identifying when, where, and how Iran may be violating the deal, so not to be taken by surprise.
The Israeli concern spans beyond Iran's nuclear ambitions, as its deal with the west hardly addressed Iran's massive funding of global terrorism. With the nuclear deal and the war on Islamic State placing Iran squarely within the ranks of the "good guys," it is becoming a bigger, albeit indirect threat to Israel.
Egypt: It's the economy, stupid
Egypt's primary challenge today is its economy. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is making considerable efforts to improve the economy and bolster his regime, so it is believe that the stabilizing factors outweigh the destabilizing ones. Nevertheless, Egypt underwent two revolutions in a very short period of time, and the Egyptian public may lose its patience at any time.
Financially speaking, Egypt is dependent mostly on Saudi Arabia. Disappointed with Washington's policies, Cairo has been flirting with Moscow and Paris in its search for new diplomatic and military allies. Despite these trends, Egypt has not changed its strategy completely, and a change in the U.S. administration may see Egypt shift its focus back to its veteran ally.
Israel sees Egypt as a partner with which it shares many interests, primarily ensuring regional stability. Both countries face an imminent threat from Hamas in Gaza and Islamic State's proxy in Sinai. The latter particularly challenges the Cairo regime, as its violent rampage across the desert peninsula deals constant blows to the Egyptian tourism industry.
The jihadi proxy, which has come to be known as Sinai Province, is believed to number between 500 and 1,000 well-armed operatives. The group relies mostly on the Libyan smuggling routes for its steady weapons supply, and its operatives' growing combat experience makes them brazen enough to carry out logistically-complicated attacks, such as the Oct. 31 downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, which killed 224 people.
In its previous incarnation as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the group attacked Israel several times, mostly firing rockets on the southern resort town of Eilat, and it was behind the August 2011 cross-border attack on Highway 12, in which eight Israelis were killed.
While the group currently focuses on striking Egyptian forces, Israel represents the next step. There is also tangible concern that as pressure on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grows, Sinai Province will set its sights on new targets, both regional and overseas. Under these circumstances, an attack against Israel would be considered a major achievement, and it is one of the reasons the IDF remains on high alert on the Israel-Egypt border.
The Egyptian military is investing considerable resources in its efforts to eradicate Islamic State's presence in Sinai, but to limited success so far. This stems both from the fact that what does not pose a direct threat to Cairo is not as urgent, and the fact that the Egyptian military is ill-equipped when it comes to counterterrorism. This is one of the reasons why Israel allowed Egypt to pour additional forces into Sinai, essentially elasticizing major articles in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey: Hope for stability
As far as the Saudis are concerned, the world is currently divided into two: Those who favor Iran and those who oppose it. In that respect, anyone trying to undermine Iran, including Israel, is a potential ally.
King Salman, backed by his son and defense minister Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, is pursuing an active approach by which Saudi Arabia is positioned as the undisputed leader of the Sunni Arab world. This policy has led the Saudis to operate all over the region: aiding Egypt, undercutting Hezbollah in Lebanon, weighing in on the Syrian civil war, and countering Iran wherever it can, especially by reducing oil prices to hinder Iran's economic rehabilitation.
This places Israel "with" and "against" the Saudis: With them against Iran, and against it when it comes to the Palestinian conflict. Riyadh must pay this lip service, but there is no denying that progress on the Palestinian front would create unprecedented regional opportunities for Israel.
Over in Jordan, the main concern is that Islamic State will gain a foothold in the kingdom, even if so far Amman's security forces have been able to keep them at bay. Jordan is also facing major economic issues, but King Abdullah's regime is stable, so at this time there is no immediate threat to Israel from the east.
Turkey, for its part, has undergone significant changes over the past few years, turning from a conflict-free nation, to one at loggerheads with every one of its neighbors. This explains President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's efforts to forge closer ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, as he is in need of new allies.
Domestically, Erdogan continues to expand his control, while Islamic State and the Kurds remain constant causes for concern. Turkey finds it difficult to fight the Kurds effectively, mainly because the Kurdish rebels, who make up the bulk of U.S.-backed ground troops fighting Islamic State, have Washington's support.
Erdogan is trying to tone down his rhetoric and appear more "user-friendly" to Europe and Israel. The longer the civil war in Syria drags on, and the more ricochets hit Turkey, the more flexible Ankara will become. But make no mistake: Erdogan has not changed his positions and any step he will take is bound to be self-serving, so his moves must be taken with a grain of salt.