Hamas responded Wednesday to the assassination of five of its operatives in Khan Yunis with an "object lesson" of some of the means at its disposal. Sderot and the Negev communities came under a murderous barrage of more than 40 Qassam rockets, killing one student at the Sapir College and injuring a number of other people. Ashkelon, a target Hamas strikes less frequently, suffered a number of rockets that managed to disrupt some of the city's electricity.
Ashkelon has been attacked at least five times in the past by long-range Katyushas and Qassams. But until now the rockets have fallen in open areas or the city's southern suburbs. Wednesday's rocket, which fell near the city's Barzilai Medical Center, was a harsh illustration of the fact that tens of thousands more Israelis are now in range of Hamas fire. A major escalation, such as a large-scale Israel Defense Forces ground operation in the Gaza Strip, could bring Hamas strikes on Ashdod, as well.
Those who decided on the targeted killing in Khan Yunis - the prime minister, the defense minister and, it is to be assumed, the foreign minister (standing in for Olmert while he was in Japan) certainly took into account the expected fierce response. Hamas has been trying for some time to create a balance of deterrence with Israel in the Gaza Strip. For every large-scale strike on its people, it has responded in recent months with massive rocket barrages.
The organization especially wants to see targeted assassinations taken out of the equation. Hamas seems to believe that if Israel pays an impossible price for the assassinations, it will avoid them. This is critical issue for Hamas, whose senior political figures are constantly worried about being killed, as were their predecessors, Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. The five Hamas activists who were killed were known to have returned to the Gaza Strip after the wall fell at Rafah, following training in Iran and Syria. The Shin Bet security service hinted that they had undergone intensive training for a special project. Another kidnapping? Long-range rockets? Suicide bombings? Clearly, the theat was serious enough to decide to strike them immediately, even if it meant dozens of rockets on Sderot and Ashkelon.
As in previous rounds of violence, Israel can be expected to deliver a harsh response of its own. However, such action is not immediately expected to include sending large-scale ground forces into the Gaza Strip; preparations for such an operation have not yet been completed. A major ground operation might come in the spring, and even then, Israel will probably prefer dealing with certain areas of the Strip, and to avoid as much as possible a wholesale occupation. In total contrast to Lebanon in 2006, it is impossible to identify at any level - from the cabinet to the Gaza Brigade - a desire to go to war. However every Israeli casualty, especially in Sderot, brings the IDF a little closer to a major operation.
Under the influence of the dramatic media reports, one could forget that only two weeks ago, following the wounding of the Twito brothers in Sderot, we experienced a similar escalation. The tension relaxed, or simply disappeared from the agenda, following the assassination of Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyah in Damascus. This time, too, if no more Israelis are killed, the tension may slowly dissipate. Hamas, at least as it seems for now, does not want to drag Israel into all-out conflict.
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