Analysis |

Gaza Flare-up Could Lead to Another Pre-election Escalation

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Following Saturday's incident on the Gaza border, it appears that the upcoming Knesset election, like its predecessor, will take place under the threat of military escalation.

In November 2008, three months before the last election, a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas broke down; six weeks later the Olmert government was dragged into Operation Cast Lead, which included a massive IDF ground operation in the northern Gaza Strip, in violation of agreements with the main coalition partners.

The Netanyahu government could find itself in a similar situation. The prime minister may talk up the need to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat, but one of his main cards in the upcoming election is the relative calm Israelis have enjoyed during his current term. Each incident involving IDF casualties and, even more so, every rocket attack on Negev communities, brings Israel closer to a military operation, despite Netanyahu's lack of enthusiasm for such a venture and his awareness of the risks inherent in a ground operation.

The hardest thing to parse in events of the past few weeks is the conduct of Hamas. The conventional wisdom in Israel since Cast Lead was that Hamas seeks to avoid direct confrontation with the IDF and that whenever it must choose between the need to demonstrate armed resistance (muqawma, in Arabic) to Israel and maintaining its control of the Strip, it will choose the latter. But there has been a shift, starting with Hamas funding for more extreme factions that took part in firing on Israel, and going on to Hamas openly participating in attacks on the IDF.

Until recently Hamas had focused its tactical efforts on the "perimeter," an area a few hundred meters wide on the western, Palestinian side of the border fence that the IDF occasionally enters in search of explosive devices. But in the past few weeks, Hamas has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks against IDF forces on the Israeli side of the border, including ones in which soldiers were wounded.

One significant incident, that did not get the attention it deserves, took place Thursday night when an explosives tunnel near the border south of Kissufim blew up, lightly injuring an IDF soldier. The IDF believes Hamas created the tunnel, the explosion of which was presumably an unsuccessful attempt to carry out a major terror attack that could have killed many Israelis.

Israeli security figures see these incidents as part of an intentional Hamas effort toward escalation. It is not clear whether this is indeed the case, and observers caution that other factors, such as the expected upcoming internal election to replace retiring Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, commenting on Saturday's events, said, "The IDF responded harshly to the incident and further action will be considered in the coming days. We will not tolerate any escalation along the border."

It can be expected that the United States and Egyptian governments will step in to cool down the situation. If their efforts do not pay off, however, the shifts in dynamics along the Gaza-Israeli border could lead to broader clashes and eventually an IDF ground operation on the eve of the election.

Israelis running for shelter after Red Alert sounds, warning of incoming rockets, November 10, 2012.Credit: AFP