The Palestinians have broken the cease-fire in the south twice over the past week. While Hamas’ reasons for these acts may be clear, Israel’s reaction is hard to predict since political considerations may come into play.
When this summer’s war in the Gaza Strip ended, Israeli cabinet and army spokesmen highlighted two remarkable achievements. First, that Hamas emerged from the campaign with no strategic achievement. The truce Hamas finally had to beg for at the end of August, after 51 days of fighting, was exactly what the Egyptians had offered six weeks earlier. Moreover, it didn’t alleviate Hamas’ economic and diplomatic isolation in any way.
The second achievement was strengthening the strategic alliance between Israel and Egypt. The Cairo generals loathe Hamas leaders even more than the Israeli leadership does. Since the war merely demonstrated Hamas’ malicious intents, Israel can continue to coordinate its regional moves with the Egyptian military regime.
Now the combination of these two achievements is threatening the quiet in the south, almost four months after the fighting has ended. On Friday a rocket was fired from the south of the Strip, landing close to an Israeli community in the Negev. The Israeli Air Force retaliated by bombarding a factory, which Israel says was producing cement for rebuilding Hamas tunnels. On Wednesday a soldier from a reconnaissance unit was badly injured by sniper fire. Israel responded with air strikes and tank fire east of Khan Yunis, killing a Hamas commander and injuring a number of activists.
The explanation for Hamas’ provocations appears to be relatively clear. The organization has no real accomplishment to justify the Gaza Strip residents’ suffering over the summer. The Strip is still under siege, traffic through the Rafah crossing to Sinai is closed for the most part and the money transfers intended to bankroll the repair and rebuilding of Gaza are all but stuck. The main reason for the standstill is Egypt’s conduct. Cairo has no interest in making things easier for Hamas. The international community hardly complains about Egypt’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. Also, Hamas isn’t likely to engage Egypt directly with a military confrontation.
The Egyptians also suspect Hamas of training Jihadist organizations that operate against Egypt in Sinai and supplying them with weapons.
Despite the Palestinians’ fear of a harsh Israeli retaliation in the Gaza Strip, Hamas may be closer to the point of deciding it has nothing more to lose.
Israel is aware that Hamas may drag it into another military campaign. Therefore the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, has conveyed numerous warnings to Hamas in recent days not to renew the rocket fire and terrorist attacks.
However, the Knesset election campaign is also playing a role in the situation. Traditionally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tends to be cautious in exercising military power. But this time Netanyahu is under a massive media attack over the economic situation and the polls are not kind to him. To make matters worse, his promises that the last war has changed the security situation in the south may turn out to be hollow. This combination of circumstances could theoretically tempt Netanyahu to change the political agenda to a security one, and thereby give Likud stronger electoral ground to stand on.
A similar possibility was raised in the left wing regarding the air strike in Syria that was attributed to Israel earlier this month. These allegations were deemed groundless. The bombardment in the north was planned and required meticulous preparation involving hundreds of intelligence and operations personnel. It is very hard to believe that had the cabinet dictated such a move to the army, for political considerations, it would not have been leaked.
The situation in the south is far more fluid. Hamas is challenging Israel and the public expects the government to retaliate with an attack. In these circumstances, a slightly harder push on the military pedal is enough to dictate a different course of events.
Throughout the summer operation, the prime minister was, for the most part, cautious and avoided unnecessary escalation. In the next few weeks it will become clear whether he intends to do that this time as well.