Hamas militants in Gaza.
Hamas militants in Gaza. Photo by Haaretz
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Maybe it's the support it received from the official visit of the Qatari emir, maybe it's Hamas' feeling that it has restrained itself for too long in light of the Israeli assassinations of extremist Jihad activists in Gaza – what is apparent, based on the heavy rocket attack from the Strip on Wednesday morning, is that Hamas has changed its policy on attacks against Israel. According to initial information, Hamas is responsible for at least some of the rockets that wounded three migrant workers and caused heavy damage to homes in the Gaza envelope communities.

For a long time there has been a steady escalation on the border of the Strip. But until Wednesday morning, it still seemed that things were under a certain degree of control.

The main clash was between Salafist Jihad organizations, which launched rockets against Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces, which struck at firing squads and occasionally assassinated activists who were involved in attempts to carry out attacks via Sinai.

Hamas played a double game: Sometimes it financed the activity of some of the organizations, sometimes it took steps to restrain them, when it felt that their initiatives were liable to bring about a large-scale military campaign by Israel and endanger the stability of Hamas rule.

On several recent occasions, Hamas activists were also hit (and once civilians as well) in air force attacks. On Tuesday night, three activists in rocket-launching squads were killed by Israeli attacks, including two Hamas members. Hamas announced that it would take revenge – and did so this morning when it launched the rockets. The organization even assumed belated responsibility for detonating a roadside bomb on Tuesday, which seriously wounded a company commander of the Golani Brigade, Capt. Ziv Shilon.

In places where the Iron Dome system is effective, like Ashkelon, the Katyushas were intercepted. When it comes to firing on communities closer to the fence, protection is partial at best and the result was the wounding of the migrant workers in the chicken run of one of the communities. Apparently Hamas is less afraid of Israel's reaction. The relatively close relations with Egypt, along with the Qatari visit, are instilling a self confidence that is liable to turn out to be mistaken and exaggerated.

But in this equation there is also another significant side, Israel. In the almost four years of his government's tenure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a cautious and responsible military policy on all the fronts. Despite his image, Netanyahu refrained as much as possible from embarking on large-scale military campaigns.

The periodic rounds of violence on the Gaza border were characterized by a great deal of Israeli rhetoric, but there was no launching of ground forces deep into the area. The Israeli threats, combined with the air force attacks, sufficed each time to convince Hamas to impose order in the Strip before the conflict got out of hand.

Now the rules of the game may change. Netanyahu is entering an election campaign, in which one of his main cards is the prolonged (relative) security calm on the borders. When the residents of the Gaza envelope are interviewed on the radio and ask where the government is, a prime minister who is running for reelection will find it difficult not to take stronger action.

You don't have to go too far back in order to recall a precedent. Early in December 2008, a center-left government of Kadima and Labor was in power here. The senior members of the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, along with most of the heads of the defense establishment, were opposed to a military campaign in Gaza.

But when the cease-fire with Hamas collapsed, as the coalition parties were preparing for elections and their leaders were being criticized for their inaction, the government's attitude changed.

At the end of that month Israel embarked on Operation Cast Lead. Probably neither Netanyahu nor even Hamas want to see that happen, but the story is definitely liable to repeat itself.