Israel Must Make a Decision on Gaza — Now
JNS.org – Events in Gaza are moving quickly, and Israel has now reached a critical fork in the road with two main paths: a significant military escalation, which has the potential to gain momentum and turn into a broader armed conflict; or a long-term arrangement, designed to restore calm to the area.
Opinions in the security cabinet have been split on whether to give Egyptian mediation efforts more time to reach an arrangement with Hamas, or whether to respond more forcefully to Hamas’ border attacks.
Until this week’s middle-of-the-night rocket attack that smashed a house in Beersheva into rubble, and which saw a second rocket head towards central Israel, it was easier for proponents of the mediation efforts to make their case.
The IDF had been able to largely contain the Hamas-organized border rioting, which included grenade and IED attacks, when Israeli cities were not under fire. The western Negev region, however, was under constant low-level Hamas attacks, including arson, incendiary balloons, and border disturbances; life for local residents there has not been easy these past six months. Gaza’s civilians — trapped in endless feuding between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — have seen their situation deteriorate considerably, and are on the verge of an economic and humanitarian crash.
Hamas thinks that by playing a game of dangerous brinkmanship and ramping up the pressure on Israel, Jerusalem will be more likely to enter into an arrangement that lifts security restrictions on Gaza. It is a gamble that could blow up in Hamas’ face.
At 3:40 a.m. on Wednesday morning, sirens went off in Beersheba. The family inside the home struck by a rocket narrowly averted a terrible fate, thanks to the alertness and quick thinking of a mother who rushed her family into a safe room. A major red line had been crossed, and an intelligence investigation has begun in Israel to figure out who crossed it.
Already in the hours after the attack, the IDF indicated that it was linking Hamas, Gaza’s ruling regime, and the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second-largest faction in Gaza, to the attack.
Hamas and PIJ were quick to deny any link to the rockets, even going so far as to describe them as “irresponsible.”
The IDF seemed unimpressed. A military spokesman noted that the attackers launched mid-range, locally produced rockets that “are in possession of only two organizations in Gaza: Hamas and PIJ, which very much narrows it down.”
The spokesman said the military was less concerned about which organization launched the projectiles, noting that Hamas “bears full responsibility.” The Israeli Air Force then struck 20 Hamas targets across Gaza, including an offensive terror tunnel that crossed into Israel, tunnel-digging sites in Gaza, and a maritime tunnel shaft on the Gazan coastline, which was designed to allow Hamas commando cells access to the sea without being noticed. Additional targets destroyed by Israel included rocket and weapons factories.
But that response still falls into the normal Israeli retaliation pattern and indicates that Jerusalem has not yet made a decision on whether to take things further or not.
Factors that sway that decision include the results of the IDF’s intelligence investigation, which should shed more light on exactly who fired the rockets, the result of the Egyptian mediation efforts, and the status of other key fronts, particularly the highly explosive northern arena, where Israel is busy trying to keep Iran out of Syria. If Israel can avoid having to deal with multiple active arenas at the same time, it would prefer to do so. It is not so clear that this can, however, be avoided.
The IDF has drawn up responses to a range of scenarios, and would be ready to strike Hamas and PIJ more severely if it receives a directive from the government to do so.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has taken the unusual step of publicly announcing his conclusion that the time for talk has passed, and that all of Israel’s efforts to deescalate the situation — by injecting essential goods into Gaza, like fuel and electricity — have failed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, following a military evaluation meeting, that Israel “would act with great force” — a possible signal that Israel was not prepared to absorb the rocket fire and go back to business as usual.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas views Gaza as a rebel Islamist province that should be brought to its knees for splitting away from Ramallah’s rule. He has played his own role in blocking chances for a truce arrangement. Abbas has placed heavy economic sanctions on Gaza, and refuses to act as a channel for international investment in Gaza’s civilian infrastructure until Hamas surrenders to him.
The result is a highly unstable, explosive situation that is teetering on the brink of escalation.
The coming hours should reveal in which direction Gaza and Israel will go. If the result is conflict, then it will be one that Hamas and its allies brought upon the heads of the Gazan people.
As IDF Southern Command chief Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi said, “Hamas pretends to govern in Gaza, and tells the Gazan population that it seeks to improve their lives. However, in reality, Hamas specializes in riots at the border fence and in using explosive devices, incendiary and explosive balloons, and, as we saw last night, rockets. Hamas worsens the lives of ordinary Gazans.”
Yaakov Lappin is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel’s defense establishment, military affairs, and the Middle Eastern strategic environment.