The events along the southern front which commenced at 11:30 on Saturday morning are the closest thing there is to a war between Israel and Hamas. It is difficult to ascertain (geographically) where and for how long the violence will reach before international intervention forces a halt to the hostilities. However, Israel's opening salvo is not merely another "surgical" operation or pinpoint strike. This is the harshest IDF assault on Gaza since the territory was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Palestinian sources in Gaza report that 40 targets were destroyed in a span of three to five minutes. This was a massive attack much along the lines of what the Americans termed "shock and awe" during their invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Simultaneous, heavy bombardment of a number of targets on which Israel spent months gathering intelligence. The military "target bank" includes dozens of additional targets linked to Hamas, some of which will certainly come under attack in the coming days.
Like the U.S. assault on Iraq and the Israeli response to the abduction of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser at the outset of the Second Lebanon War (the "night of the Fajr missiles," a reference to the IAF destruction of Hezbollah's arsenal of medium-range Fajr missiles), little to no weight was apparently devoted to the question of harming innocent civilians. From Israel's standpoint, Hamas, which persistently fires rockets while using the civilian population as cover, had plenty of opportunities to save face and lower their demands. In stubbornly continuing to launch rockets during the course of recent weeks, it brought this assault on itself.
A final decision on the precise timing of the operation was made on Saturday morning during consultations between the prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, and army generals. The cabinet approved the assault in its last meeting on Wednesday. Since that day, the government has waited for the opportunity to strike. Apparently, an intelligence tip indicating that members of the Hamas military wing were convening for a meeting expedited the decision-making process on giving the go-ahead to act. According to initial reports from Gaza, a number of senior Hamas officials were hit, yet the scope of the harm done to the group's leadership has yet to be precisely determined. The Israeli objective is clear: deal as serious a blow as possible to the Hamas chain of command in order to throw its operating capabilities off kilter. Ostensibly, it will not prevent heavy rocket fire on the Negev towns, but it will likely make it more difficult for Hamas to carry out more damaging attacks against Israel.
Since Saturday afternoon, the IAF has maintained a significance presence in the skies over Gaza in hopes of intercepting rocket-launching cells belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But the rocket barrage which rained down on Netivot (where one Israeli was killed by a Grad rocket which directly struck a house), Ashkelon, and the communities abutting the Gaza Strip is only the appetizer. The defense establishment is girding for a daily round of rocket fire that is expected to exceed 100 projectiles, some of which are likely to reach the maximum range currently within Hamas' capability - 40 kilometers, a distance that extends to the outskirts of Be'er Sheva and Ashdod.
It would be reasonable to assume that Hamas is preparing to spring another operational surprise a la Hezbollah: from attempting to shoot down IAF aircraft to the targeting of key strategic sites, like the Ashdod port. The IDF Home Front Command has already launched a massive deployment of its forces who are tasked with instructing the residents of the Negev to remain in their homes (the urgency of the instruction is proportional to the residents' proximity to the Gaza Strip). In addition, a few hundred reservist soldiers have received call-up notices.
Israel's continued hesitation in taking action against Hamas is rooted in the trauma it suffered in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. The major x-factor, of course, is not related to the operational capabilities of the air force, but whether or not to launch a ground invasion. Will the government resolve to do so and is the IDF capable of successfully carrying out a mission which it failed to accomplish against Hezbollah? It is reasonable to assume that the picture will become more clearer within three to four days. Until then, the IAF is expected to continue its assault which will be complimented by limited activity from relatively small ground units.
As the situation appears now, Israel has assigned modest goals for itself: weakening Hamas rule in Gaza and restoring a prolonged lull along the border under terms that are more convenient for us following an internationally imposed compromise. Hamas, in its continued strikes on the Negev in recent weeks, erred in judging Israeli intentions and has been dragged into a war that it doubtful wanted. Now, Israel needs to be careful in not falling into a trap of its own.
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