Within a two-hour period, the Israel Defense Forces conducted approximately 50 strikes against Hamas installations in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday night, according to a military source.
This was the second round of combined aerial-tank strikes on Sunday, following a similar but smaller assault on Hamas installations in the Beit Hanoun area in the northern coastal enclave, and the largest Israeli bombardment since the 2014 Gaza war.
One rocket fired at Israel generally results in one retaliatory airstrike by the Israel Air Force. Israeli military officials have therefore described the large-scale strike, which came hours after a single projectile was fired at the southern city of Sderot, where it landed between two homes and near a college, as “exceptional” or “irregular” — though it may be a sign of things to come.
The Israeli airstrikes, though numerous and powerful enough to be heard from Israel, targeted Hamas infrastructure and caused little collateral damage, with Palestinian media reporting two to five people lightly injured; the most serious case appeared to have been a shrapnel wound to the foot.
Sunday evening also saw a Hamas parade through the streets of Rafah, with representatives from the Sunni terrorist group threatening violence against Israel if the Gaza blockade continues.
On Sunday night, Hamas officials claimed Israel was trying to “create a new status quo in the Gaza Strip,” while Israeli military officials rushed to announce on Monday morning that there was “no intention for escalation.”
Why then the “exceptional” IDF response?
In the hours since the Israeli airstrikes, many have pointed to hard-line Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman as the force behind the large-scale and what some analysts have called “disproportionate,” retaliation.
However, this was not the first rocket attack by a terrorist group in the Gaza Strip since Liberman took over the Defense Ministry in May, nor was it the most destructive.
On July 1, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a vacant Israeli preschool in Sderot, crashing through the ceiling and causing damage to the interior.
In contrast, Sunday’s rocket landed between two houses, causing neither injury nor serious property damage.
The upscaled response by the Israel Air Force appeared to be the latter half of Liberman’s new “carrot and stick” policy toward Palestinians, which he unveiled last week.
The relatively straightforward initiative entails punishing “bad” Palestinian cities — the hometowns of terrorists and sites of riots against Israeli security forces — while providing economic incentives to “good” Palestinian cities, those that remain quiet.
Though this was not the first rocket attack since Liberman took office, it was the first since he announced this new policy, a plan which has drawn the ire of more right-wing Knesset members, including Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich and Likud MK Yoav Kisch, for being too light-handed on Palestinians.
And while his policy dealt more specifically with the West Bank, Liberman’s new plan seems to have been applied to the Gaza Strip on Sunday night.
There also exists the possibility that the Israeli airstrikes performed an operational, and not only a deterrent, function — though this has not been officially confirmed by military sources.
Whether the airstrikes were an attempt by Liberman to prove to Israelis he would be tough on terror, a deterrent effort aimed at Hamas, a move toward some specific military objective or — most likely — a combination of the three, neither group appears interested in seeing this exchange of fire continue.
In the two years since the last Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, both sides have repeated numerous times that they don’t want renewed conflict — and that remains true.
Hamas, which lost a huge number of rockets and weapons in 2014, has faced difficulties getting its hands on materiel in light of the ongoing Israeli naval blockade and increased Egyptian crackdowns on subterranean smuggling. Therefore, the terrorist group is motivated to hold off on another round of fighting with Israel until it is better supplied and armed.
Israel, on the other hand, seems to see quiet on the Gaza border as its own reward.
Moreover, Hamas has generally not launched rockets at Israel in the last two years. Instead, the 14 rockets fired toward Israel in 2016 have mostly been launched by fringe Salafist groups, some of them connected to the Islamic State, which have a tense, combative relationship with Hamas.
Unfortunately, in the two years since Protective Edge, it is said equally frequently that neither side needs to desire a war for one to occur.
The nature of Israel’s tit-for-tat relationship with the Gaza Strip’s terrorist rulers makes the situation ripe for rapid escalation.
A fringe terrorist group in Gaza fires one rocket, prompting an Israeli response. Not wanting to appear weak, Hamas fires back, prompting another Israeli retaliation, on and on ad bellum.
For both the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the Israelis in the surrounding communities, Sunday’s exchange was a reminder of what another war could mean — and why it should be avoided.