One story dominates the front pages of the Israeli press on Thursday: Operation Pillar of Defense.
Maariv splashes “The End of Restraint” in big letters above the burning wreckage of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari’s car — the first of many targets in the Israeli Air Force’s airstrike campaign. Jabari’s face in crosshairs punctuates the headline. The paper writes that “Jabari’s end was known, more or less, already; it was only a question of timing.” Maariv writes that the IDF has already drilled troops for a possible large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, and that plans for Operation Pillar of Defense were in the works for months.
Columnist Amit Cohen points out Israel’s relative silence vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip, the shift of focus to the Syrian border, and proclamations that the latest round of violence was over as signs that Israel was about to end its policy of restraint. “The timing wasn’t surprising, but the force of the reaction was,” he writes. “They were expecting a reaction; they didn’t expect a declaration of war.”
He quotes a Gazan journalist who, 24 hours before the operation was launched, eerily predicted the nature of a coming IDF retaliation. “Most Gazans, it would seem, including the [Hamas] organization’s upper echelons, awaited a far more limited strike,” Cohen writes.
“It’s possible to assess that [Hamas's reaction to Jabari's assassination] won’t stop on its own. Israel will be forced to continue fighting until a ground invasion of Gaza.”
Yedioth Ahronoth, like Maariv, prints a jingoistic photoshopped image of Jabari with red crosshairs on his face and calls Wednesday’s assassination “The extermination and preparation” in its headline. Its main story’s headline reads “Civilians on the front,” but refers not to the million and a half Gazans and the million Israelis affected by Operation Pillar of Defense, rather only the latter.
The tabloid’s coverage focuses foremost on the human aspect of the rocket barrage that followed Jabari’s death on Wednesday. “Shelters were opened, community centers closed, mass events and sports games canceled — [residents of] the south planned yesterday for a wave of escalation that seems as though this time will be longer than usual,” the paper reported. Schools across the south were canceled in towns as far north as Yavne — 40 kilometers (26 miles) from the northern Gaza Strip. Residents of Beersheba flocked by train and bus to the center of the country.
The paper reports that 60 rockets were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, 25 of which were intercepted by Iron Dome missile batteries.
Columnist Nahum Barnea reports that across southern Israel, residents breathed a sigh of relief — relief that the government finally acted against incessant rocket fire from Gaza, a sigh because the coming days and nights will be far from easy. Though he lauds the IDF’s opening day of Operation Pillar of Defense, he cautions that “I hope there won’t be reason for us to regret that we celebrated [Jabari's] death.”
Yedioth dedicates more than a third of its main section to Wednesday’s events in Gaza.
Haaretz reports that the Israeli security establishment expected heavy bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas, and that some of the Islamist group’s rockets could strike as far as central Israel — namely the greater Tel Aviv area cities of Rishon Lezion and Rehovot. The Home Front Command began communicating with local authorities in central Israel in order to prepare residents for the possibility of rocket barrages, the paper reports.
Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff praise the IDF’s tactical logic behind eliminating Jabari and destroying Hamas’s Fajr-5 long-range missiles, the ”Judgment Day weapons.” Neutralizing Hamas’s chief of staff “would create confusion among his people,” and it was “good that part of the Palestinians’ launching capabilities at central Israel were silenced.”
“There remains doubt, however, if all of those [long-range missile] capabilities were indeed wiped off the map yesterday,” they write. “Despite the hit on Jabari, Hamas maintains the ability to command and control.” The writers warn that Palestinians may attempt to balance the situation through rocket fire, shootings and suicide bombings, both from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
An editorial run by Haaretz warns that “past experience teaches that pinpoint assassinations of the heads of political movements and military organizations are not necessarily effective, and that they usually give rise to even more extreme leaders instead.” The paper cites Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s ascension in 1992 after his predecessor, Abbas Musawi, was assassinated by Israel in southern Lebanon.
“Now is the time to remember… and to avoid, as far as possible, violent actions that will cost the lives of innocent people. Now is the time to act to calm things down,” it writes.
Israel Hayom calls the Jabari assassination a “Strike to the head” of Hamas, and in reference to the biblical allusion from which Pillar of Defense’s Hebrew title was taken, the paper’s main coverage features the headline “Pillar of cloud — and fire.” (It, too, has a photo of Jabari with crosshairs photoshopped on. Is that the best the press’s graphics people can do?)
In terms of reportage, there’s little difference in Israel Hayom’s coverage, although it features Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements to the press Wednesday evening on page 2. It quotes Netanyahu saying that the government “will do everything in order to protect our citizens.” The article emphasizes Netanyahu blaming “Hamas and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip” as “those who escalated the violence against Israel.”
The cockles of Dan Margalit’s heart were warmed by the fireball that engulfed Jabari’s car. “For a moment, the Israel of once-upon-a-time popped up, cunning, speedy, and not clumsy,” he writes. Jabari’s assassination was “better late than never.”
Even with Margalit’s gushing praise, he offers words of caution. “There’s no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense got off on the right foot, but it’s understood that the end will be particularly difficult.”
“Patience and sangfroid are the test of the home front. Also the understanding that every objective is limited for the foreseeable future.”