Fifteen Gazan Palestinians killed, more than 100 rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, nearly one million Israelis in the area under attack - the weekend numbers are the worst since Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Nevertheless, while it may take a few more days before calm is restored, neither Israel nor Hamas seem interested in an escalation that would culminate in an Israeli ground operation in Gaza. Barring mass civilian casualties, the bets are on ending the latest round of violence within a few days.
This round, like so many before, began with specific intelligence on the Israeli side. This time, it was about a plan by the Popular Resistance Committees in the Strip to duplicate its successful operation last August, when eight Israeli civilians and military personnel were killed in an attack on Route 12, near Eilat.
Israel responded by killing the plan's mastermind - Zuhair al-Qaissi, a commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees - despite knowing this would heat up the border with the Gaza Strip for a few days at the least.
A second terrorist died in the Israeli air strike that killed al-Qaissi. Most of the other 13 Palestinians killed in the course of the weekend belonged to launch units, and died while trying to fire rockets or on their way to launch sites.
Palestinian sources confirmed that all 15 deaths on their side were militants. The absence of civilian deaths greatly reduces the impetus on the Palestinian side to retaliate, although it must be noted that if the cross border violence continues, civilian casualties will be almost inevitable.
The good news is that Hamas has no interest in Operation Cast Lead, the sequel. The bad news is that Hamas has less control over the situation than in the past. Islamic Jihad, with avid support from Iran, has accumulated its own stores of deadly rockets. The resistance committees wants to get back at Israel for killing two of its leaders. The two groups were responsible for most of the fire directed at Israel in the past two days.
A report issued on Saturday by Palestinian Authority news agency WAFA points to a weakening of Hamas' iron grip in the Gaza Strip. The news agency said Hamas asked Egypt to help rein in Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas does not want Gazans to view it as Israel's "border guard," but in the clash between the desire to maintain resistance to Israel and to remain in control of the Strip, Hamas has repeatedly chosen to avoid direct military confrontation with Israel.
For several months now, Hamas has faced growing opposition in the Strip. Islamic Jihad, once an ally in its conflict with the PA, is now the regime's main challenger. Iran is the focus of the friction between Hamas and Islamic Jihad: While the former has slackened its ties with Tehran and Syria, Islamic Jihad leaders in the Strip have remained loyal to Tehran and to their patron in Damascus. At least 10 of the 15 people who died in the Israeli weekend air strikes were Jihad members; their funerals turned into recruiting sessions for the organization.
As in August, this time too Israel is conducting itself with extreme caution where Egypt is concerned. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime last year and the elimination of the last shreds of Egyptian control over Sinai, the peninsula has become the backyard of the Gazan terror organizations. The benefits for them are clear: operational freedom of action, a long and unprotected border with Israel, and plausible deniability - yesterday the resistance committees claimed yet again that they had nothing to do with planning a terror attack from Sinai.
With Egypt entering the equation, Israel's room for maneuver declined dramatically. The Israel Defense Forces cannot take preemptive action within Egyptian territory, and if Jerusalem decides on a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, it risks further destabilizing its relations with Cairo.
Egyptian intelligence is supposed to be responsible for reimposing the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but today's Cairo speaks and looks very different from that of a year ago. Egypt yesterday slammed Israel's "dangerous escalation" in the Strip. The country's Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament will not stand idly by if the situation there spirals out of control.
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