For Israel in Gaza, a delicate balancing act

As long as Hamas doesn’t target Tel Aviv and its environs, neither side will be in any major rush to end the fighting

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses after an Israeli missile strike hits Gaza City on July 8, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses after an Israeli missile strike hits Gaza City on July 8, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)

The first good news of the morning from the operation that the Israel Defense Forces has dubbed “Protective Edge” is that Hamas hasn’t launched any rockets toward Israel’s central Dan region and is keeping a tight rein on its shooting.

The massive rocket fire on Israel Monday, which penetrated up to but no more than 40 kilometers inside Israel, combined with the headlines in the Israeli TV news and the chat heard at the Iftar feasts that close the daily Ramadan fasts, constitute the real message Hamas seems to be sending to Israel: It is not interested in a further escalation. And Israel feels the same way.

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, no one wants a ground operation that will bring about the collapse of Hamas, and most of the attacks Monday night in Gaza were on open areas or specific houses which Israel did not believe were inhabited.

The terrible news from Tuesday morning is really only affecting residents of the south. As long as Hamas doesn’t launch into the center of Israel, Hamas and Israel aren’t rushing to end the present round of fighting. Hamas may not want widespread escalation, but it is making abundantly clear at every opportunity that it will not stop the rockets until its new demands are met: open the Rafah crossing with Egypt, transfer salaries to Hamas’s government workers, release all the prisoners from the Shalit deal who were re-arrested after the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers, and return to the cease-fire conditions drafted in 2012.

Israel, for its part, is progressing slowly and carefully, as if Hamas is shooting at residents from another country – the country south of the Dan region. There is a sense that the IDF will not expand its combat activities and will not send in ground forces as long as the attacks are restricted to the communities around the Gaza Strip, maybe as far as Ashdod or Beersheba.

Hence, the greatest danger for the residents of the south and the people of Gaza is that we could end up in a kind of war of attrition, which the rulers of neither Israel nor the Strip would be in any hurry to end. (The War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt lasted from 1968 to 1970 and was an inconclusive, drawn out, and bloody conflict with static fighting along the southern border.)

The beginning of Operation Protective Edge and the way it has been managed in its first few hours illustrate fundamental differences compared to the management of 2012’s Operation Defensive Shield, which began with the assassination of Ahmad al-Jabari, or 2008-9’s Operation Cast Lead, with the attack on the Hamas policemen’s training course. The difference is largely due to the fact that this time Israel was dragged into the latest escalation and did not start it.

But the problem with progressing carefully is that it signals to the other side, in Gaza, that Israel is very wary about fighting.

In the meantime, Hamas is continuing to prepare for the next stage of fighting. That is to say, the combination of launching long-range rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with terror attacks inside Israeli territory through tunnels.

The organization is holding back for the time being on launching rockets toward the Dan region, on the assumption that there are a number of steps that both sides would have to take first. One can imagine that if Israel takes out, or tries to take out, one of the Hamas leaders, or injures a large number of people, the “Code Red” sirens will sound in the center of the country as well.

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