Much of the grisly escalation of violence into which we have been plunged starting with Hamas’s rocket barrage at Jerusalem at 6 p.m. last night is dismally familiar from the years of previous conflicts since the Islamist terror group forced out Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah forces from Gaza in 2007.
Israel is being battered by incessant rocket fire, spreading death, destruction and panic through a widening swath of southern Israel. The IDF is hitting back in Gaza, targeting Hamas and other terror groups’ installations, rocket launch teams, and numerous terror commanders. The battle over the narrative is in full sway, with Hamas bragging of the indiscriminate harm it is wreaking in Israel while simultaneously protesting the Israeli counterstrikes. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza is highlighting what it says are the deaths of children in IDF strikes, while the Israeli army declines to comment on specific incidents but says at least some of the Gaza civilian fatalities, including children, were caused by the terror groups’ own rockets misfiring or landing inside the Strip.
In Ashdod, Ashkelon and beyond on Tuesday, families run for cover, shelter with their crying babies in the stairwells of buildings many of which still are not equipped with bomb shelters. Radio and TV reports on the injury and damage from the last strike are interrupted by warning sirens signaling the next incoming barrage.
Familiar, too, is the Israeli political and military leadership quandary: Though Hamas knows the IDF will hit back from the air, it is plainly not deterred from the frequent battering of the Israeli home front with its rocket fire. An Israeli resort to a ground offensive could prove more of a deterrent but would lead without question to greater loss of Israeli life, and might not achieve any definitive, long-lasting success. A full-scale Israeli effort to reconquer Gaza and oust Hamas would be immensely complex and deadly, and its gains would be reversed the moment the IDF pulled back — thereby necessitating a semi-permanent military presence that successive Israeli governments have adamantly rejected.
On Monday evening, the IDF gave this round of conflict a formal name — “Operation Guardian of the Walls” — suggesting, perhaps, that it does not anticipate the hostilities ending in the very near future. But the path to long-term or even medium-term calm remains as elusive as ever.
Said the former Mossad and military officer Sima Shine in a Tuesday afternoon Channel 12 interview, soon after the first two Israeli fatalities were confirmed, “There is no policy.”
There are some telling differences in the violence and its context this time, however.
Militarily, Hamas claims to have improved its rocket capabilities. Israel has gradually improved and broadened its range of rocket defenses, notably Iron Dome. But Hamas, as far as can be assessed, no longer has the secret weapon it invested so much of Gaza’s scant resources in developing — its terrorist tunnels under the Israeli border. Israel’s underground barrier along the border would appear to have neutered that pernicious threat.
Politically, Hamas is plainly widening its effort to eclipse Abbas’s Palestinian Authority as the main representative of the Palestinian people and cause. The escalation of hostilities has seemingly been triggered by Jerusalem-centered controversies, including the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and — most significantly — Hamas assertion of responsibility as the protector of the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount. (Its Monday night rocket fire followed the expiration of its self-styled “ultimatum” demanding that Israel remove its security forces from the compound — the holiest place in Judaism, and site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam.) The Islamists, recognizing that Abbas canceled this month’s planned Palestinian parliamentary elections, and July’s presidential vote, because he knew he would lose, are seeking a victory nonetheless: rendering the PA irrelevant on the ground, having been denied the opportunity to do so at the ballot box.
Politically for Israel, the timing of this escalation could prove momentous. The diverse array of anti-Benjamin Netanyahu parties, led by Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, were reportedly hoping to complete negotiations on a majority government on Monday evening, with a crucial meeting planned with Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am party, whose support is vital for a majority.
But the Ra’am leader, who has been calling for improved relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, canceled that meeting because he apparently saw himself in an increasingly untenable position: One of the other atypical characteristics of this round of violence is the degree to which some in the Arab Israeli community are overtly joining the anti-Israel chorus — coming to Jerusalem to participate in protests and riots and, over the last few days, demonstrating and rioting in Arab and Jewish-Arab cities all over northern and central Israel.
Former national security adviser and ex-IDF operations chief Giora Eiland noted on Tuesday afternoon that since Hamas is plainly not deterred from launching rocket attacks on Israel “every Monday and Thursday,” and since Israel is evidently disinclined to reconquer the Strip, the Israeli government needs to at least consider alternate tactics and strategies.
His specific suggestion, he told this writer in a brief telephone interview, is that Israel acknowledge that Gaza meets the formal definitions of a state — since Hamas has control of defined territory, a centralized governing hierarchy, independent foreign policy, and an army — and begin treating it as such.
Elaborating, he noted that Hezbollah has not attacked Israel since 2006 because it has too much to lose in Lebanon, where it is at the core of the government and would be blamed by the populace if it invited Israeli counterattacks on Lebanon’s national infrastructure.
Gaza is so impoverished, and so lacking in national infrastructure, that its Hamas government can afford to attack Israel with abandon, Eiland said, knowing that Gaza has nothing to lose in the inevitable Israeli counterstrikes and that its people will not blame it for precipitating the conflict. Were Israel in a first step, by contrast, to encourage, say, France to build a power plant for Gaza that would ensure 24-hour electricity in the Strip, Hamas might think twice about attacking Israel during its construction, knowing that the French engineers would flee, the under-construction plant would be leveled by the IAF, and the Gazan public would hold its Hamas government responsible.
“I’ve been saying this kind of thing for about seven years,” said Eiland, “but what’s most important is not whether this particular idea is right or wrong, but that the Israeli government and leadership consider such alternatives. And I can tell you, on good authority, that no such intensive discussion has been held for years” on how to handle Gaza.
“Instead of choosing the best alternative, we just keep returning to the default option.”
Which, all too plainly, isn’t working.
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