The decision to take action to expose the tunnel west of the fence on the border of the Gaza Strip Tuesday night was justified and reasonable, even if it had been possible to predict the results: six Palestinians killed, heavy rocket fire on Sderot and a direct hit on the center of Ashkelon. It is hard to see what other choice Israeli leaders had. Such an operation may put the continued cease-fire in danger, but if Hamas had succeeded in its plans to abduct another Israel Defense Forces soldier using the tunnel, the situation would have been infinitely worse.
At least Israel has learned the lesson of the Gilad Shalit abduction. In cases where the Shin Bet security service passes on specific information on a planned attack, a "ticking tunnel" as the IDF called it yesterday, a preventative operation is approved a few hundred meters inside Palestinian territory. Without such operations it would be very difficult to prevent another abduction.
Despite Wednesday's escalation, there are still moderating factors that could prevent the complete collapse of the lull, or tahadiyeh in Arabic.
Israel has no interest in renewing the fighting now. Official spokesmen were careful on Wednesday to describe the paratroopers' operation as a "surgical strike" to remove a specific threat. They emphasized the importance of the cease-fire. Leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are all against waging a major military operation in the Gaza Strip now.
Hamas currently seems to be interested in strenghtening its hold on Gaza. Only a few hours after the rockets were fired on Israel the organization issued a statement saying it still supports the tahadiyeh and that it had asked Egypt to help restore calm to the region.
Hamas wants to complete its defenses before another round of fighting, which it expects may happen in a few months. However, it seems Hamas leaders were willing to sacrifice the cease-fire for a major strategic success such as another abduction. This is not the only example: Last week the Shin Bet released for publication the fact that it has stopped a Hamas militant who had infiltrated into the Negev in an attempt to kidnap a soldier and smuggle him back into Gaza.
On the other hand, Hamas is also forced to respond to the IDF operation. It cannot accept six fatalities among its forces quietly. That is why it needed to restore the balance of terror on Wednesday and set a price for the next time: If Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, then Israel will be attacked too. Nevertheless, the general feeling of commentators in Gaza is that Hamas' top priority, in addition to the renewed talks with Fatah in Cairo next week, is to maintain its hold in Gaza.
In some way the renewed fighting and the return to the headlines in the Arab media will help Hamas in next week's negotiations and provide them a position of strength, as they are once agains portrayed as the leaders of the Palestinian struggle and opposition while Fatah is painted as a Zionist agent.
But Hamas was worried no less on Wednesday by the American elections. Even while fighting was underway in the middle of the Gaza Strip, its spokesmen were busy formulating a first response to Obama's election. The relatively restrained statements about the president-elect seem to indicate that someone in the organization hopes Obama will agree to talk to Hamas despite its radical positions.
It would be interesting to know if in Chicago, just before the end of his moving speech, one of Obama's aides took the time to find out where Dir Al-Balah is and what was actually happening there. It is more than likely that his aides did not bother the president-elect with the matter, even though he still vaguely remembers his visit to the incredible "Qassam Museum" in Sderot a few months ago. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is certainly not the most important thing on Obama's mind at the moment. Anything that develops along the Gaza border over the next few weeks is still the problem of the Bush administration, but the forecast is not very rosy. While in Chicago they are hoping and preparing for a change, in Gaza they are still stuck in the past. It won't be Obama's problem for another six weeks.
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