Are the events currently unfolding between the Negev and Gaza just another round of violence, however ferocious, or the start of a large-scale military operation that might include an extensive ground operation by the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip? The answer to that question has not yet been given, but it will become clear in the next few days. At the moment, it would appear to depend in large measure on how Hamas conducts itself and on how tight a leash it has on the other groups in Gaza.
The explosions heard in Tel Aviv yesterday evening did not result in casualties, but did give rise to anxiety. Last time missiles were aimed at Tel Aviv was in the Gulf War of 1991, and the last suicide bombing in the city was more than six years ago.
It was to be expected, under the circumstances, that missiles would be launched at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. After all, Hamas has an account to settle with Israel following the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, and it wants to chalk up a powerful and memorable achievement - in addition to the barrage of missiles it and other Palestinian organizations are aiming at the southern part of Israel, which resulted in three deaths in Kiryat Malachi.
But the situation should be seen in the right context. The Palestinians' ability to launch mid-range missiles into the Tel Aviv area is fairly limited; indeed, most of the Fajr missiles of this range have been destroyed by the Israel Air Force. Hamas probably has a few more missiles of this kind, and also some homemade 200-mm. rockets, which have a similar range, but on the whole there does not seem to be a chance of significant damage in central Israel. Still, the Palestinians have changed the "threat equation," and it stands to reason that Israel will respond with harsher measures.
From Israel's point of view, the problem is that the initial stage of the operation is beginning to wind down. Past experience shows that an aerial attack of this sort this ceases to be effective within three or four days.
On the first day, surprise is achieved; on the second day, opportunities resulting from mistakes by the adversary are exploited; but on the third or fourth day, errors start to be made and targets missed. The Israeli leadership now has to decide whether to move to a broad ground operation or make do with what has been achieved and join the international effort to reach a quick cease-fire.
In the meantime, Israel is noting with satisfaction the clear-cut American support of its right to defend itself, as expressed in the conversation between President Obama and Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday. If the IDF does not carry out an attack in which large numbers of civilians are killed, it is possible that the United States will agree to exercise its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to rebuff resolutions hostile to Israel.
The Jabari assassination fomented a crisis between Israel and Egypt that is more profound than it seemed to be at the start. This goes beyond any anti-Israeli statements by President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The top security and intelligence personnel in Cairo, who always mediated between Israel and Hamas, think that this time Israel has crossed a red line. Cairo viewed the cessation of fire by Hamas and the other groups on Tuesday morning as a significant achievement. Intelligence officials in Egypt believed calm was at hand and were incensed at the Israeli operation. In fact, they were no less stunned than Hamas by the Israeli offensive.
For the time being, Cairo is not engaged in a concerted effort to bring about a rapid cease-fire. Egyptian intelligence personnel are still waiting for instructions from the government before taking action. At this stage, it appears Cairo wants coordinated international pressure on Israel to stop the fighting. This was indicated by Ramallah-based Yasser Othman, the Egyptian ambassador to the Palestinian Authority. "The new Egypt will not allow Israeli aggression in Gaza," he said.
It turns out that, for the time being, the Hamas liaison with Egyptian intelligence, in place of Jabari, will be Moussa Abu Marzouk, who is based in Cairo as deputy chief of Hamas' political bureau and is a candidate to become head of the bureau.
The targets chosen by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak for the start of the operation were deliberately restrained and modest, so they would be attainable. But the civilian political leadership could be tempted into believing that Israel can achieve much more by sending troops into the Gaza Strip. At press time it was difficult to discern any great enthusiasm within the army's top ranks for a major ground operation. We have to hope that, along with the offensive operational plans, Jerusalem is already thinking about an exit strategy.