Israel and Hamas Are Sliding Toward Ground Battle

Conflict creeps closer as informal understanding between the two sides since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 has collapsed.

Without much desire or a clear plan, Israel and Hamas are gradually sliding toward another conflict on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Analysts' assessments that neither side wishes to engage in such a head-to-head confrontation seem to be making no impression on the people actually determining the situation.

The informal understanding between the two sides since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 has collapsed. Starting in mid-March, fighting has taken place along the Gaza border intermittently. When the intensity escalates, as it did on Thursday, a ground offensive draws nearer. Over the weekend there were alarms from Gedera to Be'er Sheva, nearly 100 rockets and mortars were fired, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis took shelter in secure areas. In the Strip, over two and a half days, at least 19 Palestinians were killed.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas' Qassam Brigades, March 26, 2010

The incident on Thursday, in which a 16-year-old Israeli was critically wounded after Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus, points to a reprisal for the air force's killing of three men in the group's military wing on April 1. In the absence of an appropriate military target, the militants decided to target a school bus.

It's doubtful whether Ahmed al-Ja'abari, who heads Hamas' military wing, knew that the target was a school bus. Had the bus been full, it surely would have set off another war.

On the other hand, the claim by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri yesterday that the people who fired the missile were also unaware that the target was a school bus is ridiculous. As it regularly does, Hamas is playing a double game. Its political wing is calling for a cease-fire, while its military wing is firing rockets.

As far as Israel is concerned, the targeting of the bus means a red line has been crossed; this triggered a wide air assault on militant targets in the Strip. For now, as the tit for tat of rockets and air attacks continues, Israel has not responded favorably to Hamas' signals that it wants calm restored. It looks like the Israel Defense Forces will continue its bombing attacks, at least as long as rockets are fired at Israel.

The most important new element in the past three days has to do with the impressive success of the Iron Dome defense system. The battery has so far downed nine rockets since it went into action Thursday. The success means there is less pressure on Israel's decision-makers to react, since rocket interceptions mean fewer chances for Israeli casualties.

Even though Iron Dome's successes have answered the sharp criticism of the system, its supporters and its manufacturer, Rafael, it's worth remembering that the system remains limited. Only two batteries are operational and a special allotment of U.S. funds may finally be approved this week. That money will procure four more batteries and many interception missiles. In short, it will be two more years before Israel is in a position to offer extensive defense against the rockets.

Meanwhile, according to the Iranian doctrine, the Palestinians are stepping up rocket attacks to test the Iron Dome and to hit other towns, because the two batteries essentially provide cover for Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon.

Unlike during Operation Cast Lead, Hamas is not trying to hide its casualties. On the contrary, it is taking pride in them, perhaps in an effort to bolster its image as the leader of the Palestinian resistance against Israel, a status that faded a bit during the two years of calm.

The relatively large number of casualties in the organization's military wing suggests that the group has become more vulnerable to Israeli intelligence. Over one week, Israeli intelligence led to three strikes against key operational figures in the group's military wing.

One of the biggest problems facing both sides, if they seek to halt the fighting and avoid a full-scale operation, is the absence of Egypt from its role in curbing Hamas, at least partially.