An awful case of deja vu - that’s what the last two weeks have been like for many residents of southern Israel.
Children and adults who did their best to move past last summer’s trauma of repeated missile attacks and return to normal, amid the quiet of the last eight months, suffered a major setback over the past few weeks. Once again, sirens wailed in the middle of the evening and once again, they had to rush, heart beating in panic, to the nearest bomb shelter or other protective structure.
On May 26, a rocket fired near Gan Yavne in the evening brought a 15-year-old girl to the hospital in shock - Israel quickly responded striking four Gaza targets before dawn. Then, in a repeat performance, three rockets were fired at Israel on June 3, exploding near the Gaza border and next to Ashkelon. And again, on June 6, at about 9:30 on Saturday evening, another rocket exploded in an open area outside Ashkelon, Israel once more retaliating that same night, with the air force striking “terror infrastructure” targets in northern Gaza Strip overnight.
With each siren and explosion, hopes that this year’s summer vacation would be very different from last year faded even more.
In truth, the situation on the ground has, in fact, changed from the way it was last year - but not necessarily in a good way.
The new story that Israelis are being told as to why rocket fire from Gaza has renewed would sound absurd if it weren’t being delivered by deadly serious stone-faced military affairs pundits authoritatively quoting “the military establishment.”
It goes like this: We’ve gotten used to a narrative over the years in which Hamas are cast as the bad guys - the worst guys, in fact - on the Palestinian side, contrasting with the Palestinian Authority’s not-quite-as-bad guys. The Gaza conflict in 2014 played out in keeping with this familiar narrative. The black-hatted Hamas was hitting Israel relentlessly with missiles, and it was our job to debate over how hard to hit them back. By air? On the ground? How hard? And ultimately, when do we stop? But the issue of whether to hit Hamas was never the question. After all, no one was worse than Hamas, who were as bloodthirsty and unreasonable as the jihadis raping and beheading in Syria and Iraq. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously put it: “Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas.”
But these days, it seems, ISIS-affiliated factions in Gaza would beg to differ.
These Salafists, we are now told, are behind the rocket firings. Salafists are nothing new in Gaza, but their decision to support and affiliate with ISIS is a relatively recent development. (Apparently, signing up with the ISIS brand is the effective thing to do these days if your goal is to flex your muscles and intimidate your foes.)
Israelis, we learn, are essentially being used as pawns in a deadly game of chicken between Hamas and these Salafist rivals. The Salafists refuse to abide by the informal truce that has kept the tense quiet between Hamas and Israel since the Gaza war - and Hamas is not religious and fundamentalist enough for their taste. Crackdowns by Hamas have failed to stop them; in fact, they seem to fuel their rage and determination.
Firing rockets into Israel serves a dual purpose for them. It makes a statement that they are true jihadists, unlike the Hamas sell-outs who abide by truces - and it also happens to be an excellent way for them to indirectly strike back at their Hamas oppressors. Why, after all, go to the trouble of attacking Hamas when you can so easily get Israel to do it for you?
While we keep being told that they are too small and powerless to pose a real threat to Hamas’ rule, there are apparently enough of them to keep stirring up trouble and Hamas has not managed to keep them in line.
So - Israelis ask - what can we do about it? The answer: we’re stuck. If we hit Hamas back hard, we’re told, we are playing into the hands of the ISIS ally. If we hold back, we are sending a message to both the Salafists and Hamas that they can toss missiles our way and get away with it.
The solution so far is what is being called “symbolic” retaliation. While officially still holding Hamas responsible for the attacks and retaliate against them, the Israeli air force bombing raids that happen at dawn the night after Israel is hit by a rocket or three, they don’t seem to be causing any real damage or costing lives.
None of our leaders will ever admit this out loud - no politician, particularly in a government like this, wants to touch this policy of restraint with a ten-foot pole. Instead, unnamed defense officials brief military correspondents and analysts and we get the message filtered through them.
Channel 2 television correspondent Roni Daniel, who is regarded in some quarters as an unofficial IDF spokesperson, gave his viewing audience a “stiff upper lip” lecture at the end of his report on the Sunday night newscast. “The other side is looking to see how Israel reacts,” he warned. If our politicians or public react too strongly in public “this encourages the other side to keep firing. We need to stay level-headed and calm about this. Of course it’s no fun for people to raise kids in this atmosphere. But right now there is no solution for Israel, there’s nothing we can really do to stop this. We have to keep reacting in a very measured way, and if the attacks step up, then the IDF will hit harder.”
The message was clear: residents of southern Israel are being told to chill out and not to get rattled by the occasional siren or explosion. After last summer’s war ended with declarations from Netanyahu that the “drizzle” of rocket fire would no longer be tolerated, that is exactly what is happening.
To help calm jitters, Israel Defense Forces have deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries in several locations in the south - but that offers minimal comfort.
It’s a new reality - one in which Netanyahu is not interested in hitting the Hamas regime in Gaza hard and may even see a national interest in propping it up, in what Haaretz analyst Amos Harel has dubbed the new “odd partnership” between Israel and Hamas.
In this reality we are now supposed to rely on Hamas - the black hats - to shut down the blacker hats of ISIS Salafists and convince them not to do precisely what Hamas itself prides itself on doing, when the time is right for them.
It’s a situation that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, among Israelis, in the south or anywhere else in the country. While trying to hope for the best, we are fearing - and mentally preparing for - another long hot summer of conflict. One can presume that over in Gaza, Palestinians are doing the same thing.
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