Let's start with the conspiracy theories: The renewed escalation in the south was not aimed at disrupting the renewal of the social protests. It's highly unlikely that the Islamic Jihad militants who fired a Grad rocket at the Ashdod area Wednesday night took last night's demonstration in Rabin Square into consideration. The Shin Bet security service officials who recommended Saturday afternoon's strike on the Islamic Jihad cell also presumably failed to ask about Daphni Leef's weekend plans. The Shin Bet identified preparations to launch more Katyushas from a training camp in what used to be the settlement of Atzmona, and the Israel Air Force launched a sortie. The result of that strike - five Jihad militants killed, including one relatively high-ranking area official - is what dictated the force of the current escalation.
So far the round that began on Saturday resembles the previous one, which was prompted by the August 18 terror attack near Eilat and lasted a few days. Now, too, neither Israel nor Hamas wants an extended conflict. Hamas has not yet exhausted the show of force that followed the Shalit deal, in which more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed. For a few months the IDF has complied with the policy of restraint and containment dictated to it from above. Even if they toy with the idea of restoring the deterrence effect vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip, Israel's civilian leaders do not seem eager for a military adventure with vague objectives and an indeterminate conclusion.
Islamic Jihad responded to the killing of its men with massive force, firing more than 20 rockets and mortar shells that injured two Israelis. The IAF focused on the launch teams, but presumably will soon initiate strikes against Hamas and Jihad headquarters and positions as well. Similar cycles in the past lasted less than a week. If Israeli casualties mount, however, the military response will heighten.
The position of Hamas will also affect the chain of events. In the last cycle, in August, Hamas joined the firing relatively late, only after it sensed it was losing the popularity contest against the smaller and more extremist faction. But whenever the organization's leaders fear that things are spinning out of control and that Israel might jeopardize their great Islamic-rule project in Gaza, they stepped on the brakes. This time there will be even more incentives to do so: the increasingly close relationship with Egypt's provisional government and the fear that prolonged fighting would delay the second phase of the Shalit deal, in which an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners are to be released.
Hamas officials were not surprised by Islamic Jihad's firing of the Grad after weeks of relative quiet. Had the lull in the fighting gone on much longer Jihad risked fading from the public eye in Gaza. The organization, and especially its Iranian handlers, have no such intentions. Jihad is now squarely back in the forefront of the rejectionist (muqawama ) camp, to which Hamas has mainly been playing only lip service of late. In order not to be seen as having turned its back completely on the ideology, for the sake of convenience, Hamas must let Islamic Jihad respond to the killing of its members with rockets, but only for a limited period.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who last week called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the main obstacle to peace, said during a visit to Bosnia on Saturday that he hoped the PA, together with the international community, would help end the rocket attacks. Perhaps Lieberman needs to be reminded that the PA has no pull in Gaza nor, in light of his recent remarks, any will to help.
Inert Iron Dome
Saturday's events also raised the issue of the performance of the Iron Dome batteries. During the previous cycles, in April and August, the antimissile system did very well. On Saturday, there was one successful intercept, above Be'er Sheva, but the Katyushas fired at Ashdod and Ashkelon were not shot down. This might be connected to the deployment of the batteries and the radar systems in the areas north of the Strip. Photographs issued by Jihad last night show five rockets being fired simultaneously, and that too might make interception more difficult,
The Palestinians are keeping their "Doomsday weapon" warehoused, for now. The Katyushas being fired have a range of about 40 kilometers, to Be'er Sheva in the east and Gedera in the north, but the militant factions also have rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv and Herzliya. Either way, last night around one million Israelis found themselves hostage to the decision of the leaders of the military wings of the organizations in the Gaza Strip.
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