A familiar script in Israel-Gaza escalation
Neither Israel or Hamas has an interest right now in a prolonged conflict that could lead to an IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
We have already seen this movie a number of times. Intelligence on a planned terrorist attack leads Israel to target the planners. The Palestinians react by firing rockets into Israel and the Israel Air Force strikes some of the rocket launching squads. The balance, as of Saturday afternoon: 12 Palestinians killed, eight people wounded on the Israeli side, and more than 60 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
The end is also known in advance, apparently. Since neither Israel, and certainly not Hamas, has an interest right now in a prolonged conflict that could lead to an IDF ground operation in Gaza, great efforts will be made in the coming days in indirect mediation between the sides. The contacts will eventually lead to an understanding for another unofficial partial ceasefire. Life in southern Israel and Gaza will more or less return to normal until the next escalation. This scenario has occurred every few months since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009. And yet, in the past year, some new elements have been added to the picture.
The first, and most important, is the change in Egypt. Since the toppling of the Mubarak regime in Cairo, Egypt's control over the Sinai Peninsula has collapsed and that region has become the backyard for Gaza terrorist organizations. The advantages are obvious: freedom for operational action, a long and unprotected border with Israel that is exposed to surprise attacks, and plausible deniability (on Friday, the Popular Resistance Committees denied planning attacks from Sinai). The situation in Egypt has complicated Israel's maneuvering room. The IDF cannot conduct preventative actions in Egypt - and if Israel puts ground forces into Gaza, it will risk exacerbating relations, already strained, with Cairo.
The second component is the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Since it was first deployed operationally last April, the system has significantly reduced the damage caused by rockets. According to initial reports, the Iron Dome intercepted about 20 of the around 60 rockets launched from Gaza since Friday. This data is impressive, proving that the operational capability of the system is high, despite criticism from opponents of the system. (Remember that the Iron Dome only intercepts rockets that are heading toward the heart of populated areas). On the other hand, the large amount of rockets launched from Gaza may indicate a Palestinian attempt to overwhelm the system with massive volleys of rocket fire.
The third component is the Shalit deal. Less than five months after the completion of the first stage of the deal, there is growing evidence that some of the released prisoners have returned to terrorist activities. In the West Bank, four Palestinians released in the deal have been rearrested on the suspicion of planning attacks. Another released prisoner was involved in the incident near Hebron on Thursday in which an IDF soldier shot and killed a Palestinian who had stabbed him. And on Friday, a prisoner who was released in 2006 was killed alongside the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. These incidents show two things: one, a significant portion of released prisoners are returning to terrorism (the Shin Bet has intelligence information on more released prisoners involved in terror activities), and two, that Israel, as it has declared before, has not granted immunity to released prisoners, and that those who return to terrorism run the risk of being harmed.