ANALYSIS: Launching a rocket at Ashkelon is an invitation to war
Israel will most likely choose to step up its offensive in order to topple the Hamas government.
The firing of a rocket from the Gaza Strip to Ashkelon's center on Tuesday constitutes an unequivocal invitation by Hamas to war. The Palestinians who launched the rocket apparently are members of the Hamas military wing, but it's quite possible that either an Iranian or Syrian element interested in intensifying the military conflict with Israel spurred the move.
The firing is the longest-range rocket attack to have taken place from Palestinian territory. Rockets previously have hit Ashkelon's outskirts, and were generally aimed at the area's power station, but Israel refrained from cutting off electricity to Gaza. It's quite possible that the rocket that hit Ashkelon is a Russian-made Grad, which has a longer range than the Qassam. Such rockets were smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, probably through border crossings near the Philadelphi line. Tuesday's rocket hit a parking lot of an empty school, but it could have landed anywhere in Ashkelon at any time of day.
In firing a rocket into Ashkelon, the Palestinians circumvented the Israel Defense Forces armored column that has entered the northern Gaza Strip. The move is an attempt to create a new balance given the IDF's activity in their territory. If Israel strikes a power station in Gaza and if the offices of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh are destroyed, then the Palestinians will use their rockets to show they have the military power to provide a counterbalance.
The significance of Tuesday's rocket attack for Israel is that the current round of war - in which Hamas maintains control of the street, especially in the Gaza Strip - will be a tough one, because over time, the Palestinians have armed themselves with many weapons and rockets. Another difficulty for Israel is the existence of multiple Palestinian groups, including "pirate" groups that aren't always in contact with each other, and the existence of competing leaders within Hamas itself.
Over the past week, Israeli leaders have repeatedly threatened about what the Palestinians can expect if they do not release Gilad Shalit, the soldier they are holding captive. It's clear that the problem is no longer limited to how to save Shalit's life. This is a direct confrontation with Hamas, other Palestinian organizations, and their supporters among the Palestinian public.
Hamas has intensified its approach, and Israel is left with little choice other than coping with this threat, as any other country would certainly do. Israel is in a complicated situation. It must choose between agreeing to a prisoner swap, exchanging military blows with the Palestinians that will not lead Israel anywhere, and intensifying its offensive in order to topple the Hamas government. Israel will probably choose the latter option.
Whatever it decides, Israel will have to think hard about an exit strategy, even though it doesn't generally take such concepts into account in its war on terror. It's also clear that Israel will encounter major difficulty in explaining its position to the world. It is not at all certain that Israel will have the upper hand, even though it's facing a terrorist organization calling for its destruction.