This time the Israeli warnings were spot on: The frequent threats made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to settle accounts with Hamas, in the context of the latest escalation in the Gaza Strip, were implemented on Wednesday afternoon with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, head of the organization’s military arm. This is a resonant military action, far beyond the amplitude of the friction between the sides in recent days.
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In Hamas they understood that an Israeli response was expected – and therefore its heads on Tuesday went along with the Egyptian call to agree to a truce. However, it is doubtful that Hamas expected the response would be so harsh. This is not just “another” assassination (and there haven’t been assassinations of second tier activists in almost four years), but rather a hit on one of the top people in the movement and the person in the leadership most identified with the terror struggle against Israel.
The Israeli action today is the beginning of the story, not its end. All of the Palestinian factions will try in the upcoming hours to avenge Jabari's death by every means. The confusion of the first hour in Gaza is now being replaced by an unambiguous call for vengeance.
Hamas and the Islamic jihad also have in their possession a small quantity of Fajr rockets smuggled from Iran, which have a range of 75 kilometers. When launched from the northern Gaza Strip, their range covers most of the area of Tel Aviv and the suburbs surrounding it. The Hamas leadership is most probably also weighing the use of this “Judgment Day” weapon.
Attempting to prevent it, immediately after the strike Israel Air Force attacked some twenty underground sites, where both Hamas and Islamic Jihad hid Fajr rockets. The assault was meant to neutralize their mid-range capabilities, just as the IDF attacked Hezbollah in 2006 in what is since known as 'the Fajr night'. In both incidents, the attacks used accurate intelligence which was carefully collected. But when Hamas threatens now to start a war, it should be taken into account this could happen, just as Hezbollah decided to react in 2006.
For a long time now Israel has been pursuing a policy of containment in the Gaza Strip, limiting its response to the prolonged effort on the part of Hamas to dictate new rules of the game surrounding the fence, mainly in its attempt to prevent the entry of the IDF into the “perimeter,” the strip of a few hundred meters wide to the west of the fence.
This time, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have authorized the army and the Shin Bet security service a massive response. It is impossible, apparently, to ignore the contribution to this of the upcoming election in the background. Netanyahu has been fielding criticism for several weeks now for abandoning residents of the Gaza envelope communities to rocket barrages. Like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before him, upon embarking on Operation Cast Lead, he too is responding harshly on the eve of an election.
Of course, the trouble with this story – the likes of which we have already experienced a number of times – is that in launching such a strong strike you know where you are starting from but not where it is going to end. Israel has in the past assassinated leaders of the “political” Hamas, who in actuality were involved in terror, like Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Israel had also hit many of the heads of the organization’s military wing. To a certain extent, these assassinations contributed to reining in Hamas in the long run as also to the choice on the part of its leadership in the Gaza Strip to rein in a wave of suicide attacks.
Jabari, primarily after becoming close to the Egyptian regime and his role in finalizing the deal to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, apparently believed he was immune to harm from Israel. His subordinates were also surprised. Their reaction is liable to be very violent – and lead in turn to more assassinations by Israel.
Even if Netanyahu does not necessarily wants a wide-scale IDF ground operation in Gaza on the eve of the election (and the prime minister, pretty much rightly, has kept his intentions in this matter close to his chest), he might well be dragged into one, despite himself.