Hamas Won’t Blink First This Time if IDF Threatens Ground Operation

Netanyahu seeks a 'controlled escalation' that would not lead to a ground operation. The question is whether this is possible.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, July 5, 2014.
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, July 5, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The clash between Israel and Hamas heightened Monday evening, by when heavy rocket barrages on the Negev from Gaza were reaching 40 kilometers into Israel. Home Front Command warned residents of the south to seek shelter, and the Iron Dome missile system intercepted many of the rockets heading toward built-up areas. The cabinet, meanwhile, told the air force to ramp up the number and intensity of air strikes.

The “quiet for quiet” formula that Israel offered Hamas has clearly not succeeded. Four and a half days later rockets are still hitting the Negev and the air force is continuing with its pinpoint attacks on Gaza.

Based on its public statements, Hamas is increasing the size of its bet. Put otherwise, the sides are playing the most popular game in the region for years: “hold me back.” One side tries to convey that it will go all the way if its demands aren’t met, even if it’s doubtful that the side wants a clash. If a formula isn’t found soon, chances are we’ll see a further escalation.

The Israeli proposal for calm came from the Israel Defense Forces via the media on Thursday. Similar messages have probably been sent to Gaza via Egypt.

First, Hamas responded with positive signals. The Israelis were told that Hamas would soon enforce its control over its military wing and over the smaller armed factions in the Gaza Strip. But that didn’t happen.

In the meantime, not only has the firing at the Negev continued, but the IDF has discovered a tunnel at Kerem Shalom — near both the Egyptian and Gaza borders. Israel says the tunnel was meant to be used for a terror attack by Hamas.

Late Sunday night seven members of Hamas’ military wing were killed on the Palestinian side of the tunnel. Israel says it was a “work accident” — militants erred while handling explosives.

A similar accident occurred in another tunnel two weeks ago and killed seven militants. According to Hamas, these militants were killed Monday in an attack by the air force.

It seems Hamas is painting itself into a corner. It is accusing Israel of being responsible for the deaths of its activists, but it is raising the bar on its demands for a cease-fire agreement.

We’re no longer talking about a return to the understandings after Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. We’re talking about demands to release dozens of Hamas militants from the West Bank who were released in the Gilad Shalit deal and whom Israel rearrested after the abduction of the three youths in the West Bank.

It seems Hamas also has demands on Egypt and the Palestinian Authority: easing movement through the Rafah crossing, which has been almost completely closed, and the transfer of money to pay the salaries of Hamas government employees in Gaza. It seems Hamas’ financial and strategic woes are serious enough to risk an escalation, despite the chance that a direct confrontation with the IDF will exact a heavy price and that Egypt, now ruled by generals, won’t come to the rescue.

The state of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government isn't necessarily any better. On Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman leveraged his disagreements with the prime minister and announced he was scuttling the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, there’s pressure by grassroots activists in Likud and Habayit Hayehudi for the ministers to show a firm hand against Hamas. There’s also the growing public criticism of the government’s restraint in light of the rocket barrages in the south.

Facing this is the fear of a much broader escalation that could reach the center of the country and put half of Israel’s population in range. There’s also the tension created by the violent protests by Israeli Arabs.

Worst of all, the cabinet is worried about a large operation in Gaza and the concomitant risks — without having a clear goal. The air strikes won’t stop the firing of rockets immediately; at best they’ll put pressure on Hamas to stop the firing as part of some sort of agreement.

Ending Hamas rule in Gaza, as Lieberman preaches, would drag the Strip into anarchy that would force Israel to retake responsibility for governing the enclave. In light of the political pressure, Netanyahu seeks a “controlled escalation” that would not lead to a ground operation against Gaza. The question is whether this is possible.

Amid all the turmoil, the cabinet on Monday approved a very limited call-up of reserve units. For now, only 1,500 call-up orders were issued, mostly for reservists who support regular-army brigades now deployed near Gaza. They include troops such as drivers, logistics and intelligence specialists, as well as headquarters staff.

In addition, Home Front Command will call up reservists and a few units that will free up regular infantry battalions. While the size of the force will surely grow, it’s not yet large enough to launch a broad ground operation.

In comparison, during Operation Pillar of Defense, the cabinet authorized a call-up of 75,000 reservists, a move initiated by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Israel threatened a ground operation without really intending to carry it out — and Hamas blinked.

Under Egyptian pressure, Hamas agreed to a cease-fire. The problem is, it will be hard to repeat this ploy this time around. Hamas knows how the story ends.

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