Despite the rockets fired into the Negev yesterday the tension along the border with the Gaza Strip appears to be gradually dying down. In the absence of genuine desire by either Israel or Hamas to continue fighting, even the provocations of Islamic Jihad are not enough, for now, to keep the fire burning. Barring another mass-casualty incident on either side (and mainly in Israel, where government policy is totally dictated by the bottom line - the number of people killed ), the current cycle of violence could be over in a day or two.
Yesterday before dawn Egyptian sources announced the success of Cairo's intelligence services in obtaining a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian factions. The rocket barrage fired shortly after 6 A.M. at Ashdod made that a lie almost immediately. But in retrospect, it appeared to be the last gasp of that specific confrontation, a not uncharacteristic attempt by the Islamic Jihad to have the last word. Since this time Iron Dome did its job and intercepted two rockets, and the incident ended without injuries, it was relatively easy for Israel to show restraint.
Yesterday afternoon the Israel Air Force hit a rocket team on its way to a launch, killing a militant from the Democratic Front, but even this did not rekindle the fire. There was occasional rocket fire until the evening, at a much lower pace and intensity than on Saturday.
If a truce is reached, Egypt will gain most of the credit for the achievement. Just as in the Shalit deal, the Egyptian mediation led to the compromise and this time too the two sides are refusing to conduct direct talks. But even though it seems that the Islamic Jihad agreed to Cairo's request to stop the rocket attacks, there is a suspicion that the Jihad, and with it other smaller offshoots in Gaza, have identified the Israeli hesitation in responding and also Hamas' avoidance of strictly enforcing the ban on rocket fire.
Assuming that this round is nearing its end, there are still three open questions. The first concerns the reason for the outbreak: Who started it? Islamic Jihad, which certainly fired without any reason that can be discerned - except, maybe, for the anniversary of the assassination attributed to Israel of its leader Fathi Shkaki - fired a Katyusha rocket last Wednesday.
The factual dispute concerns the deaths of five Jihad activists in the Israeli air attack on Saturday afternoon.
The pictures published by the IDF spokesman's office show an exceptionally long and heavy rocket which required three people to carry it, instead of the two needed to lift a Katyusha or Grad missile. On the other hand, the intelligence showed a cell connected to the same organization that launched the Katyusha on Wednesday. The Shin Bet security service identified five Jihad members, including a senior one experienced in firing such rockets, handling the rocket and it is doubtful whether the IDF needs to stop and ask them what their plans were.
But a second question arises from this. If Israel assumed that Islamic Jihad would respond to the death of its people, why does it appear that the conduct on the home front was so slow? On Saturday afternoon, Iron Dome anti-missile batteries were not positioned in time in full formation to protect the Negev, and when they were deployed, difficulties were experienced in protecting Ashdod and Ashkelon. There was a considerable difference yesterday, in the successful interception of rockets fired at Ashdod.
The third question, and the most significant one, stems from the constellation of forces between Israel and the Gaza Strip. There is no doubt that Hamas is not currently seeking a military confrontation. Supporters of Israel's Cast Lead Operation at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 in Gaza will view this as additional proof of the benefits derived from the operation. On the other hand, Hamas has just chalked up a not inconsiderable victory
One should also not ignore the gradual erosion of deterrence.The Palestinian factions understand this fully, as do Islamic Jihad and the smaller organizations, which do not seem to especially fear starting small cycles of violence. Hamas, which isn't paying any price at all, even though Israel constantly claims it bears full responsibility for everything that happens in the Strip, understands this too.
In the meantime, Israel has bought itself time and quiet, despite the growing security threat posed by the Strip.