Analysis |

Countdown to Gaza Operation Has Begun

Hamas has to rein in the Gaza extremists who fire rockets into Israel if it wants to avoid another confrontation.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The noticeable increase in the number of anti-Israeli attacks in the West Bank since September has been the subject of news coverage, but in the meantime there has also been a noticeable escalation along the border with the Gaza Strip. During the nighttime hours between Wednesday and Thursday of this week, six Grad rockets were fired from the strip at the nearby Israeli city of Ashkelon. Five of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system while the sixth apparently fell inside the Gaza Strip.

Since the beginning of January there have been 16 incidents of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza − on average one a day. The incidents have been the work of extremist Palestinian factions, from Islamic Jihad, which fired the rockets overnight at Ashkelon, to other groups inspired ideologically by Al-Qaida.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a rule of thumb of sorts was created making it possible to identify when rounds of hostilities would erupt between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, based on the number of rockets fired from the territory. From the moment the pace returns to one a day, the countdown begins toward the next round of fighting.

The Israeli government can exercise restraint when it comes to just one or two rockets a week, particularly if they are fired into open, unpopulated areas. Daily rocket fire, however, renews the tension felt by residents in areas bordering the Gaza Strip and prompts calls for a resolute response. Since Israel’s response to every firing involves an aerial assault, the chance that Palestinian civilians would be killed in these operations also increases. It appears as if the distance between the current situation and a major escalation of the type seen in Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 is not far down the road.

Hamas is subject to heavy, almost violent, pressure from the military rulers in Egypt to prevent rocket fire on Israel. But even though the Egyptians are stepping up their threats against Hamas, and this week warned that they will deal with Hamas using similar means that they employed against the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, the rocket fire from Gaza has resumed. It could be that the efforts by Hamas to foil the rocket fire from Gaza have slackened, which would be an almost certain recipe for an additional military confrontation with Israel. No Hamas plan aimed at confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces is being seen from here in Israel, but a certain level of laxity in enforcement of the cease-fire in Gaza could also bring about such a confrontation.

In response to the overnight Grad rocket fire, the Israel Air Force struck Islamic Jihad positions and warehouses in the Strip. It can be assumed that at the same time, the Egyptians have made it clear to the Hamas leadership that Egypt and Israel will not be reconciled to continued firing from Gaza. A volley of six rockets on Ashkelon, which could have ended badly if the Iron Dome system had not intercepted them, constitutes the crossing of a red line from Israel’s standpoint. If Hamas does not now rein in the situation, a more serious deterioration could result.

An Iron Dome missile interceptor battery deployed near the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in October, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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