Analysis |

Unlike Lieberman, Netanyahu Wants Gaza Fighting to End

So do Islamic Jihad and Hamas - the rockets fired Thursday morning may be their parting shots.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite all the tough rhetoric from Israeli leaders, it appears that if it were strictly up to them, they would bring the current round of violence in Gaza that began in midweek to a swift end. So Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said we’ll have to go in and occupy the entire Gaza Strip all over again? Okay, so he said it. Lieberman has been saying this for years and hasn’t changed his mind following his return to the cabinet after being cleared of criminal charges, and after having adopted a more moderate tone that has won him praise from American officials.

But the last thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs right now is to have Golani and Givati soldiers searching house to house in the Gaza refugee camps and the city Dir al-Balah. Despite the heavy barrage of rockets on Wednesday, it’s doubtful whether there is much support among the Israeli public for such a move. Even when a more serious escalation occurred, with Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Netanyahu refrained from sending even a single foot soldier into the Strip. The air force bombarded from on high and the army called up 75,000 reservists, but this was essentially just a bit of muscle-flexing. The operation ended after eight days, without any ground operation.

Netanyahu still has the same reluctance to send in the infantry, given the likelihood of casualties. There is a difference between the second and third Netanyahu governments, as far as the policy on immediate response is concerned: At the urging of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the current government makes more of a point of not letting any rocket launch go by without a response (which the previous government sometimes let slide).

Still, the Israeli response this week has been relatively moderate. Wednesday evening the air force bombed 29 targets in Gaza, most of them associated with Islamic Jihad, which was behind the rocket fire, in addition to a few Hamas targets. The absence of reports from Gaza of deaths in these strikes indicates they were essentially “real-estate attacks”: Israel bombed empty offices and military posts that the Palestinians had ample time to evacuate once Jerusalem threatened to respond to the rocket fire.

The government’s desire to contain the conflict, to bring it to a relatively quick conclusion, rests on two considerations. The first is timing: The Purim holiday festivities begin Friday. A broader round of fighting in Gaza would completely disrupt the holiday in the south, and possibly in the center of the country too, and cause the cancellation of many large public events.

The second consideration is more strategic: The Hamas government in Gaza is actually a rather comfortable partner for Israel in many ways. Not an ideal partner, of course, but the two sides do share a number of common interests. Israel does not wish to see Hamas replaced in Gaza by someone else – as the alternatives are all likely to be much worse. Hamas, under dual pressure from Israel and, most of all, from the Egyptian generals, is trying first and foremost just to survive. A military clash with Israel would not suit its purposes.

Eyes on Islamic Jihad

The biggest question for the coming days is what Islamic Jihad will choose to do. Yesterday the organization launched a major operation, a massive rocket barrage all over the area, in response to the killing of three of its operatives in an air force strike on Tuesday. But in the evening, it held its fire. It’s not yet clear just who was behind the additional rocket fire Thursday morning; some of these rockets landed in open areas between Ashdod and Ashkelon, and some were intercepted by the Iron Dome system.

Israel believes the Islamic Jihad leadership is likewise wary of a wider escalation right now. The latest barrage may have been initiated by field-level operatives in the organization, or by people from other, smaller groups. An emergency cabinet session was convened in the wake of the events in the south, but if it turns out that the latest fire was just a final parting barrage from Gaza, Israel may decide to maintain restraint.

In previous rounds of fighting, there was always talk of “braking distance” – it takes a day, often two or three, for the leaders of these Gazan organizations to get their people back in line. Israel will monitor their conduct before it decides what degree of force to use in Gaza, if any.

For Netanyahu, the Gaza front is of secondary importance to other regional conflicts, from the effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program to the instability of the northern border due to the civil war in Syria that spills over into Lebanon. He has no inclination to ignite the Gaza front at this time. A conspiratorial take on things doesn’t get too far either – a military operation in Gaza wouldn’t relieve Israel for very long from American pressure to achieve progress in the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

But all this comes with a major caveat: The main problem in all this for the Israeli government is the erosion of the sense of personal security for residents of the south, especially in places close to Gaza. This feeling had been partially restored during the relatively quiet year since Operation Pillar of Defense. But as of January, and to a much greater extent this week, rockets are falling again. Over time, this process makes it difficult for the government as demands for a military operation rise.

If the rocket fire resumes after another brief lull, a broader military operation in Gaza will be that much closer to materializing. However, for as long as the prime minister can avoid it, he would likely prefer not to take the risk of sending ground forces into Gaza population centers, which are strewn with bunkers and booby traps, regardless of the foreign minister’s exhortations.

A trail of smoke is seen above Gaza City on Wednesday, March 12, 2014.Credit: AP

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