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Between Violence on Gaza Border and Syria Tensions, Israel Mulls Next Move

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Israel is preparing for a series of offensive measures against Hamas and the other Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, amid continued fire from the coastal enclave into the Negev. Among other options, Israeli officials are considering such moves as targeting prominent militants as well as a systematic attack on Gaza's infrastructures and Hamas institutions in the Strip. Meanwhile, tensions persist in the Golan Heights as well, where Israeli tanks fired at Syria forces – apparently hitting two soldiers – in response to a Syrian mortar shell landing in Israeli territory.

In the late afternoon and evening hours Monday, Israeli military and government officials held a series of consultations geared at determining the requited mode of action against Hamas. Security sources refused to indicate which decisions were made, though hinting that Israel has yet to exhaust its response and that significant military action can be expected in the near future.

It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would rather avoid a major land operation in the Strip, which is why the logical course of action for him would be to increase aerial strikes, which have been relatively mild until now. On Monday, Israel Air Force crafts attacked three targets in Gaza, including an arms warehouse and a smuggling tunnel. A wide assault could include hitting top Hamas officials as well as their assets.

Alongside deliberations in Israel as to the correct course of action, weather conditions have added more limitations: recent rainfall and the cloudy skies that have been covering Gaza have made it harder to execute effective aerial operations.

More than twenty rockets and mortar shells were fired from the Strip into Israel on Monday, a significant drop compared to the previous two days of fighting along the border with the costal enclave. The attacks caused damage to a house and factory in the town of Netivot, with several residents treated for anxiety. Israeli officials estimated that members of the Salafi group Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen were behind launches, and that Hamas would find it difficult to enforce his authority.

It seems that, for Israel, the moment of truth is drawing closer. Speaking to foreign envoys in Ashkelon, Netanyahu said that the "world has to understand that Israel has the right and the duty to defend its citizens," adding: "We will not sit idly by. We will act to stop this situation."

The purpose of an Israeli action would be to restore quiet to the Gaza border for some time, as well as to regain military deterrence, which gradually eroded since Operation Cast Lead four years ago. One of the problems facing Netanyahu is that Israeli officials find it hard to estimate to what degree the message is being received on the other end. After months of Israeli rhetoric, without any real action, Hamas could suspect that Netanyahu is issuing empty threats.

From Hamas' standpoint, the recent limited conflict proved beneficial, with elections for the head of the group's politburo taking place in recent days. Hamas' Prime Minister Ismayil Haniyeh can use some fighting spirit, as he vies for the position against Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas' Cairo-based official.

But in the lack of any control over the extremist factions, Hamas is finding it hard to control the height of the flames, at least not for very long. For political reasons, Hamas has recently avoided clashing both Salafists and Jihadists, since it doesn't wish to be portrayed as another Palestinian Authority. Thus, it allows the Salafists some leeway in their actions against Israel, and avoided a reaction after they founded training camps in the Strip. Hamas continues to look the other way while dozens of global Jihad militants enter Gaza from Sinai, despite the tensions this causes with Egypt.

It's possible that, for Hamas, this would be the time to end current clashes. Firstly, because it scored certain achievements (hitting the IDF patrol vehicle on Saturday) without paying a heavy price, and, secondly, fearing that Israel could mean business anyway. If Israel chose to respond severely for the recent days' events, Hamas has a "doomsday weapon" of his own – the Iranian Fajr rockets smuggled into the Strip, boasting a range of 75 kilometers. When launched from the northern Strip, they can hit most of central Israel.

Standing at the background of the current exchange of fire was a tactical issue – the agreed rules of engagement in what the IDF calls the "special security zone" or "perimeter." It is an unmarked strip of land west of the border fence, a few meters wide, into which Israel is trying to prevent Palestinian activities and even sometimes operate IDF forces.

The goal is to push attack squads away from striking IDF forces moving along the fence surrounding the Strip, while dismantling explosive devices positioned by Palestinian groups on Gaza's side of the fence. A considerable part of Palestinian attacks in recent weeks were aimed at the "perimeter," but have also recently spilled over to the Israeli side of the border.

Four soldiers from the Givati infantry brigade were wounded following the anti-tank fire on the IDF vehicle, which was driving more than 100 meters into Israeli territory. This tactical battle has been taking place, on and off, from before Operation Cast Lead. Now, it seems, that Hamas is feeling secure enough to challenge Israeli policy and try and enforce new rules on the IDF.

On the northern front

While Israel tries to figure out what message it is trying to convey to Hamas, it has been having trouble communicating its intent in another front – the North. Much media attention was given to the launch of the "Tamuz" missile into an open field in Syria on Sunday, fired in response to the errand Syrian mortar shell exploding on the Israeli side, as Syrian troops continue their attacks on rebel strongholds on the Syrian side of the border, but still hit the Israeli side now and again.

It seems, however, that the message wasn't received. A Syrian shell again struck Israeli territory earlier Monday, exploding near an IDF outpost in Tel Azekah. Again, the fire seems to have been aimed at rebels near the village of Beer Ajam. In response, an Israeli tank fired an accurate shell at a Syrian artillery batter. According to unofficial reports, two soldiers from Syrian President Bashar Assad's army were hit.

Officially, Syria is ignoring the Israeli shootings, with Syrian media failing to report these latest incidents. Even Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah ignored the exchange in a speech he gave on Monday evening. It’s doubtful that Assad is interested in escalating matters with Israel, with the hardship he faces at home. And still, at least thus far, he seems unimpressed by the IDF's signals.

One should probably add the joint missile test Israel and the United States conducted on Monday to the long list of regional developments. As part of the drill the two armies have been conducting for several weeks, Patriot missile batteries intercepted a drone. Indirectly, there was a message for Iran and Hezbollah too, after Hezbollah sent Iranian-made drone into Israeli airspace over a month ago.

Mortar shell marks seen on a wall as a person closes a broken window of his house in a community along the Israel Gaza border, Israel, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012.Credit: AP
A rocket hits a house in Shaar Hanegev kibbutz.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

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