Hamas, despite its weak position and strategic distress, is calling the shots so far in the current round of hostilities. Israel is sliding toward a military confrontation it did not seek. The growing casualties in the Gaza Strip and the fact that three million Israelis have already experienced running to shelters to the sounds of blaring sirens are dictating an increasing escalation. Since there is as yet no blueprint for an escape route for the two sides, and Egypt’s commitment to putting in the effort required to reach an agreement is unclear, it’s impossible say how long the hostilities might last.
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The Gaza conflict hitched a ride on the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month, but it is expanding independently of that incident. As far as is known, the Hamas leadership in Gaza was not part of the chain of command behind the abduction, carried out by a Hamas cell from Hebron on July 12. But the failure of the operation — the bodies were discovered by Israeli forces before the organization presented its demands — left Hamas without an achievement to boast of. This came on top of a growing sense of being under siege, with failed attempts by Hamas leaders to break the stranglehold.
Hamas thus looked for an alternative achievement, leading to its military wing embarking on heating up the Gaza border by firing increasing numbers of rockets. The extent of coordination between the Hamas military and political branches is unclear. Israel responded with restraint, launching pinpoint aerial strikes. Earlier this week Hamas launched a more ambitious move, attempting an attack through a tunnel under the border. This was foiled when the lead forces were hit, apparently in a “work accident.” The leadership then went into hiding, instructing their forces to intensify their attacks.
Israel’s problem is that it was dragged into the conflict from lack of choice, similar to developments before Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Hamas mistook the intentions of the Netanyahu government, believing it would hold back. However, Israel then held the element of surprise. Its opening moves killed the leader of Hamas’s military wing Ahmed Jabari and destroyed most of the organization’s mid-range missiles, facilitating a cease-fire.
This time Hamas leaders are deep inside their bunkers and it is estimated that they have several hundred rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv, some of which are well hidden. Hamas has apparently learned to be more cautious. During earlier rounds, many rocket operators were killed in air attacks while preparing to fire. This time, at least some of the launchers are underground and their crews keep a safe distance from them when firing.
These circumstances and the growing frustration in Israel are pushing the government to respond more harshly. Senior cabinet ministers have said that all Hamas targets are now legitimate.
Hamas is searching for achievements. The first tunnel attack failed, but on Tuesday there were reports of another explosion in the same area with no Israeli casualties. Five Hamas frogmen landed on a beach near Kibbutz Zikim, after the air force killed four other naval fighters. The five were killed by a Givati Brigade force. It appears that Hamas has prepared a series of such surprises in order to upset Israeli operations and gain some morale boosters, but so far these have failed.
As expected, the Tel Aviv area joined the “deterrence equation” on Tuesday, in premeditated proximity to the evening news. The sole rocket that was launched was intercepted above Rishon Letzion. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a splinter group loosely affiliated with Hamas, took responsibility, claiming that the rocket was a Buraq-70 aimed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Tel Aviv was fired on during Operation Pillar of Defense, so these organizations obviously view targeting the airport and threatening civilian air traffic as another achievement, although in fact this threat is grossly exaggerated.
The firing is expected to continue, and Hamas has hinted at rockets that can reach even farther than Tel Aviv. One rocket already landed near Jerusalem, with increased firing at the Tel Aviv area. The Iron Dome system has intercepted many of these, minimizing casualties. With half of the country under fire, emergency measures will take effect regarding work and children staying outdoors. This will translate into aggressive counter-attacks.
One possibility is a ground assault, which is now more likely than during Operation Pillar of Defense. It can start with forces already available which will be joined later by others. The fighting may continue for several days, possibly escalating. The Egyptians are playing a key role here. According to Palestinian sources, top Egyptian intelligence officials earlier this week visited Israel as part of the mediation efforts.
Cairo, despite the poor relationship with Hamas, still has influence in Gaza. But it seems as if Egyptian mediation for stopping this round may be delayed, with the generals happy to see Hamas dealt a blow, before they decide to force a cease-fire.