Dozens of rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the last two days. More were fired in the days before. At yet Israel is still imploring, “Hold me back!”
Over and over, threats are issued by senior Israeli officials — some anonymously, some by name — but there is nothing underpinning them.
Hamas keeps on firing, well aware of the situation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz do not want a wide-ranging military confrontation with Gaza. Hamas smells this fear, and so the rockets continue to fall — albeit only in the Negev for now — in order to indicate that it is not capitulating to Israeli pressure or to its threats.
On Thursday night, Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades held a press conference at which it presented its own “hold me back” approach. The armed wing’s spokesman, Abu Obaida warned that “one stupid move” from the enemy would lead Hamas to hit “a bank of targets the enemy does not expect.”
He added: “We have plans that would enable us to manage a confrontation against the Zionists, and we can surprise the enemy and its allies. The enemy should understand that its aggression in the West Bank, its abuse of prisoners, and its repression and blockade of Gaza — all are fuel to ignite protests so long as these acts of aggression continue.”
On Thursday afternoon, a senior military source conveyed the message to Hamas, in the course of a discussion with journalists, that Israel does not want escalation. In a neighborhood such as ours, this was likely interpreted as weakness.
Hamas has had no interest in a major escalation, and had not been directly attacking Israel until the last few days. But ever since one of its members, Mohammed Obeid, was killed in an Israeli border attack at the end of last month — an apparent error: the IDF thought it was firing at a rocket-launch cell, but actually struck Hamas members deployed to prevent rocket fire — it has changed its approach.
Encouraged by Israel’s hesitant stance, Hamas has continued to fire intermittently at Israeli cities in order to be seen as “the defender of the Palestinian people.”
There are sound reasons for Israel’s desire to avoid a confrontation with Hamas. First, a major escalation would mean missiles fired at central Israel, and the prime minister wants to avoid that at almost any cost. Second, the IDF has no desire to get entangled in a Gaza ground offensive, and that may prove necessary after a prolonged pounding from the air. And finally, the Defense Ministry recognizes that there is no better alternative to Hamas’s control of Gaza; ironically, the Islamist group is a leadership that Israel has been able to do business with. Hamas has proved quite pragmatic, and has acted to prevent rocket fire on Israel on more than one occasion.
The problem is that this equation has shifted in recent days. It may be that Hamas has come to feel that it has nothing to lose — given the crisis over payments still owed to its people in Gaza, and the overall decline in the Gazan economy. And the fact that Hamas clearly feels Israel is scared of getting re-entangled in Gaza which has produced the belief that it can fire on Israel and get away with it.
Late Thursday, Palestinian sources were claiming that Israel has conveyed an ultimatum, via Egyptian intelligence: If the rockets don’t stop within 48 hours, Israel will hit Gaza hard.
But it is doubtful that, even if that ultimatum passes unheeded, the Israeli leadership will want to launch a wide-ranging assault on Gaza, and risk missiles on Tel Aviv.