Dangerous New Strategic Reality Taking Shape Around Israel

Even though Israel's military believes Sunni jihadists could be behind Sunday's rocket attack, Netanyahu blames Hezbollah.

Sunday’s Katyusha rocket fire from Lebanon has created a certain lack of clarity in the Israeli defense establishment.

No organization took responsibility for firing the rockets, most of which fell on the Lebanese side of the border. The cautious and non-committal assessment of military sources is that it seemed to be the work of a Sunni Jihadist faction, meaning one of the extremist factions identified with a loosely-connected network that intelligence officials call Global Jihad.

In addition to its enmity for Israel, Global Jihad devotes most of its time to the battle to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and engages in lengthy tit-for-tat murderous attacks with Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently doesn’t share the cautious view. At the outset of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he informed the media that there were two entities that should be seen as the address regarding the rocket fire: the Lebanese government, which bears responsibility for any attack from Lebanese territory, and Hezbollah, which has thousands of missiles and rockets positioned within the civilian population of southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah “organizes [rocket] fire on [Israeli] civilians, as it attempted to carry out today” and at the same time hides behind Lebanese civilians, Netanyahu said. As such, it is committing “a double war crime ... under the auspices of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army,” Netanyahu said.

There are two possible explanations for Netanyahu’s comments. The first is that the prime minister was presented with intelligence information that has not yet been made available to the media. The second possibility is that, in the prime minister’s view, Arabs are Arabs and it doesn’t manner if the entity that fired on the Galilee panhandle Sunday morning was Shiite haters of Israel or Sunnis who hate Israel but at the moment hate Hezbollah even more.

Netanyahu’s associates explained in a response to an inquiry from Haaretz that the prime minister’s remarks were “general comments on the situation” and not a direct accusation aimed at Hezbollah as being responsible for the recent rocket fire. Fine. At least this time Netanyahu didn’t claim that the rocket fire was the result of incitement by the Palestinian educational system.

Sunday morning’s rocket fire, like the series of incidents in recent months on Israel’s borders and in the Palestinian territories, reflects the new reality that is taking shape around Israel. For close to three years, Netanyahu has managed to act cautiously and protect Israel’s citizens inside a kind of “security bubble.” In Syria, in a horrible civil war that is sometimes waged just a few kilometers from our Golan Heights border, more than 120,000 people have been killed. In Egypt, the regime has twice changed hands, through a combination of protest and violence. Thousands and by some estimates tens of thousand of extremist jihadist activists have been gathering on Israel’s borders with Syria and in Sinai and Lebanon.

Military intelligence views the Sunni jihadist organizations as a new, disturbing danger, but very little of all this is felt in Israelis’ daily lives. It’s quiet in the eye of the storm.

The situation began to change at the end of the summer. Since then, both as a result of the spillover of internal confrontations in neighboring countries and increased tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, the number of terrorist incidents has increased. Between January and August, one Israeli was killed (a resident of the Yitzhar settlement who was murdered near Nablus by Palestinians). Between September and December, however, six Israelis were killed, including four soldiers and a civilian defense establishment employee. Three were killed in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, one in the area of the Gaza Strip, one stabbed by a Palestinian teenager in Israel proper and one on the Lebanese border.

Additional incidents to be added to that lengthening list are two Katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon, one at the end of August and the other on Sunday morning, as well as an explosive device found before it exploded on a Bat Yam bus, an explosive charge that nearly destroyed a paratroop brigade jeep on the Syrian border in the Golan Heights and several other attempted attacks in the West Bank.

The common denominator among most of the attacks is the difficulty in pinning responsibility on a perpetrator. In most instances, no official claim of responsibility has been made and, even when a claim has been issued, it is reasonable to assume that it is false. In those attacks in which the perpetrators have been caught, it has turned out that most were carried out as individual initiatives, without connection to the organized hierarchy of a terrorist organization.

But success, and with it media attention, leads to copy-cat attempts and the number of attacks grows. The difficulty for Israel is twofold. It’s not only hard to uncover plans for an attack by a lone terrorist or a transitory unknown faction through advance intelligence, Israel also lacks a target against which to retaliate. In Lebanon there are almost no clearly-defined Sunni organization “terrorist camps” against which a price can be exacted for harming Israelis. Israel makes do usually with a general demand that the authorities halt violence committed from their territories.

In practice, Israel isn’t doing a lot, a consequence of concern over being dragged into prolonged escalation of the situation without any clear goal. In Gaza and the West Bank, the situation is simpler because there are still authorities in charge there (Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) from whom a measure of responsibility and restraint can be demanded.

In Lebanon, which just last Friday suffered another multi-casualty act of assassination amid fears of a return to civil war, Israeli threats sound almost hollow. Netanyahu expressed pride at the fact that the Israel Defense Forces “responded powerfully and quickly” to the rocket fire from Lebanon and the IDF Spokesman’s office announced that artillery batteries fired artillery shells “toward the sources of fire.”

Who were those anonymous sources of fire and what did that fitting Zionist response accomplish? For the time being, there is no answer to this question from official spokesmen.