Be'er Sheva, rocket -AFP - 25.3.11
Israelis run to take cover in a shelter during Wednesday’s rocket attack in Be’er Sheva. Photo by AFP
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The first terrorist attack in Jerusalem in three years; a home invasion and murder in a settlement for the first time in six years; more Palestinians killed in one single day than since Operation Cast Lead. It's strange how quickly Israel and the Palestinians reverted to the routine of mutual aggression that destroyed the last decade.

All the nuts and bolts in that machine fell back into place: the rocket squads, the Israeli aircraft, the Israeli volunteers rushing to the terror scene, the politicians and the police prattling incessantly into the microphones. Only the young radio reporters sounded excited. A veteran radio reporter, someone who was around for the second intifada, put the broadcast back into terms familiar to every Israeli listener.

Neither Israel nor Hamas seem to have a clear strategy, other than fear of coming off as weak. A sequence of potentially random events led to an escalation that only Islamic Jihad, with the active encouragement of Iran, seemed to want.

Iran's tremendous investment in training and arming Islamic Jihad activists is paying off, as the organization can now dictate an escalation. Along with the regional instability, the suspension of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians' planned declaration of independence, the developments bode poorly.

Two years of relative quiet in the Negev communities around Gaza have apparently come to an end. The respites between one round of fighting and the next are getting shorter (the last round took place only a month ago ), while it's taking longer to end each flare-up. A rigorously maintained taboo was broken when Be'er Sheva was hit by Katyusha rockets for the second time in a month, leading the city to shut its schools. Israel's deterrence from Operation Cast Lead is beginning to fade.

Israel also contributed to the current tension - it killed two Hamas activists in a March 16 bombing of an outpost on the ruins of the Gaza settlement Netzarim. That bombing was in itself a response to a Qassam fired into an open field the night before. It is believed to have been authorized by the defense minister and the chief of staff, who should have known there would be people at the outpost during the day and that causing casualties would have different consequences than a routine attack on empty offices.

Israel assumed - mistakenly - that Hamas would not respond to the bombing. In fact, Hamas responded by firing 50 mortar shells on Saturday morning. A decision Tuesday by a brigade commander to authorize mortar fire on a launching site on the edge of Gaza's Sajaiyeh neighborhood led to the death of four Palestinian family members, and since then the fighting has not stopped. Still, the Southern Command is limiting its responses for now: It's attacking rocket-launching squads and hitting outposts, not assassinating senior figures or engaging in significant ground activity.

Following the Katyusha attack in Be'er Sheva and the bomb in Jerusalem Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both assuemd a relatively aggressive tone. This is not, for the time being, being translated into large-scale moves. Netanyahu himself predicted that the exchange would go on for a few days. The danger, as always, is that local enthusiasm or additional mistakes will place the sides on a one-way path.

Hamas foresaw just such a scenario. The day after the Fogel family was massacred in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, the Hamas government in Gaza warned Israel not to attack the coastal strip as revenge. Hamas feared that Israel, not knowing who was responsible for the attack, would target Gaza.

Aside from declarations by a few militant Israeli ministers, there is no information linking Hamas to the Jerusalem bombing this week, which killed one woman and wounded dozens. It could be the work of a "sleeper cell," or it could be a small, Islamic group without ties to a larger group. Jerusalem is a convenient target, both because of the tremendous resonance of an attack there and also because of the 280,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians and their relative freedom of movement. There were dozens of terrorist attacks in the city during the intifada's peak years.

Prof. Shaul Mishal, of Tel Aviv University, who has been researching Hamas for more than two decades, says the organization is losing control. The military arm fears that if it doesn't respond to the killing of its activists at Netzarim, members will leave for more extreme groups, called the Jaljalat - the Palestinian version of "hilltop youths."

Meanwhile, there is a sharp dispute within Hamas over reconciliation with Fatah. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is leading a moderate faction calling for a Palestinian unity government. He has invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to visit the Gaza Strip. Hamas military leader Ahmed Ja'abari and senior officials in Damascus oppose this. At the beginning of the week, the Palestinian Authority asked senior Hamas members to let a logistics team into Gaza to coordinate a visit by Abbas. Hamas did not respond. Ja'abari and the Damascus-based representatives view reconciliation as a threat that could lead to Hamas losing control over Gaza.

"The organization is developing an insoluble dilemma," says Prof. Mishal. "If it sits idly by, it will lose status internally. If it takes action, Israel will strike it. Hamas' position is not clear, and the group is having a hard time explaining what it wants."

A new violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas could spill over into the West Bank, something that didn't happen with Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.

"The unrest could begin after an event in Jerusalem," Mishal told Haaretz a few hours before the bombing. Nor are the Itamar murders behind us. The army and the Shin Bet security service are still hunting for culprits, and the PA, too, would seem to be interested in having the affair end quickly. No one in Jerusalem or Ramallah will shed a tear if the manhunt ends in the murderers' death, as has happened twice in recent years (after the killing of Rabbi Meir Hai near Nablus, and after the murder of four Israelis near Hebron ).

For the hard-core right wing, led by the students of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar, the account is still unsettled, heightening the anger over the aggressive evacuation of the Havat Gilad outpost in February. If the Itamar attack is not solved, another mosque may be torched in the West Bank.

Signal of change

In an interview with television station Al-Hurra, a Syrian opposition leader based in Canada said the Syrian regime, Hamas' patron, sparked the escalation in Gaza in order to divert Arab attention from the crushing of protests in Syria. That sounds logical, but is likely inaccurate. Syrian President Bashar Assad probably had enough on his hands locally.

The Syrian government has now definitively joined the growing list of states facing an "Arab spring." True, the protest is centered in the southern district of Hauran, more than 100 kilometers from Damascus, but small demonstrations have also taken place on the outskirts of the capital. On Tuesday night, Syrian security forces killed 14 demonstrators in a mosque in Dara'a. The demonstrations have been on a small scale so far. Syria has seen similar-sized rallies in recent years. But until the past month, all the demonstrations had been in the country's northeast, the Kurdish area. This time, for the first time in Bashar Assad's reign, the demonstrations erupted in a Sunni region - the birthplace of Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara.

More than a month ago, opposition forces failed at organizing a "day of rage" in Damascus via Facebook. Indeed, there was not even one disturbance that day. It's doubtful today will be quiet after Friday prayers. It may be that Syria focused its suppression on Damascus and the big cities, not towns like Dara'a. The surprise there led to a violent response by the authorities, with four demonstrators killed last Friday in Dara'a, which is in a region that has faced poverty and serious discrimination for years. The violence intensified the protests, though it remains to be seen whether they will spread around the country.

The bottom line, according to Prof. Eyal Zisser, dean of the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University, is that in an era and in a country where there have not been demonstrations, the very occurrence of popular protest signals change. The great unknown is the Syrian youth. Will they be able to emulate their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya?

On the other hand, we can assume that the late decision by the international community to bomb Libya this week has shaken Arab dictators' confidence. If they concluded from Husni Mubarak's fall that they needed to wield greater brutality in order to survive, it now turns out that Muammar Gadhafi's decision to massacre his people is also a serious risk, to the point where leaders might be ousted (or killed ) by foreign forces.

Finding the balance

The Netanyahu government, as opposed to the Olmert government, is not eager to renew negotiations with Damascus. Israel's main proponent of this move, former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, is now on a world tour taking his leave, following the traditional round of farewell ceremonies in Israel.

When Assad declared his willingness to make peace, he was busy upgrading his armed forces in the wake of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In an article in the latest issue of the Israel Defense Forces journal Maarachot, Ashkenazi's aide Col. Erez Weiner, writes, "Whereas the IDF is implementing its conclusions from the war by means of developing expensive and sophisticated weapons, only a few of which will be available to the combat soldiers, the Syrians are applying their conclusions in the form of the mass acquisition of cheap weapons that already exist on the shelf."

The Israel Defense Forces are slowly acquiring advanced defensive systems such as Windbreaker and Iron Dome. The Syrians, Weiner notes, have acquired hundreds of antitank rocket launchers and have already deployed them on the ground. "The question: Should war break out tomorrow morning, who is better prepared?"

No less troubling is the massive aid that Syria and Iran are providing to Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The smuggling is going on at full steam and has even intensified lately, under cover of the general upheaval in the Arab world. The Syrians and Iranians are supplying these organizations, especially Hezbollah, with everything - from antitank missiles to long-range rockets. Past experience drives us to presume that every weapons system the Syrian army has, including shore-to-sea missiles, will reach Hezbollah in Lebanon or will be stored for Hezbollah in camps on the Syrian side of the border.

"Syria is the greatest fomenter of developments on the northern front," says a senior security source. "Assad is living in a glass menagerie and is throwing stones in every direction. He is putting down protests at home while supplying weapons to the terrorist organizations." The Syrian president is leery of a direct war, and therefore did not respond to the bombing of his nuclear reactor in September 2007. However, he is one step ahead of Israel in the countries' cold war. At least with regard to weapons systems entering Lebanon, a critical mass is forming that could change the face of a future confrontation with the IDF there.

Israel is inclined to focus, both publicly and clandestinely, on the Iranian-Syrian nuclear alliance. Judging from the intelligence estimates projecting delays in the Iranian project, it appears that impressive successes have been achieved foiling the program, in coordination with the United States. The angle that has generally been neglected is the massive involvement of Tehran (and sometimes also Damascus ) in subversion and in arming terrorists throughout the Middle East.

Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and his representative in Lebanon, Hassan Mahdavi, are having a more deleterious effect on the region than Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. President Shimon Peres, who this week visited the IDF's 91st Division on the border with Lebanon, told correspondents that Iran is giving Hezbollah $1 billion a year. The amount was reduced after sanctions were leveled on Tehran, but it might go up again as the price of oil surges.

Israel has not yet internalized the change in the nature of warfare, and continues to complain about the delegitimization campaign it is facing internationally. The countries targeting Israel are not paying a steep price for their efforts. This is a lengthy, global battle beyond the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists (which Iran attributes to Israel ) or the bombing of a Syrian reactor. At the moment, there seems to be no logic and no concept on the Israeli side.

On Wednesday afternoon, deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh held a press conference in his bureau to present the IDF's work plan for 2011. The briefing ended almost as soon as it began, as the first reports arrived about the terror attack in Jerusalem. Instead of explaining the acquisition of new weapons, Naveh went into the next room to decide whether to reinforce units in the West Bank. Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. That's also true with regard to the balance between fighting the Iranian nuclear project and handling other threats.