Incidents along the Gaza border on Monday were apparently sparked by friction between the Strip’s Hamas government and Salafi extremist groups. Israel’s response was unusually harsh – a series of strikes that was followed by silence. But two members of the security cabinet hinted on Tuesday at the possibility of a more serious escalation within a few months.
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There were two incidents on Monday. In the morning, a rocket fired from Gaza landed south of Ashkelon, and the sound of gunfire was reported near Kibbutz Kissufim near the central-Gaza border. Shortly after the rocket fell, a Salafi group issued a statement accusing Hamas of arresting and torturing its activists, and of “behaving like the Jews.”
Israeli defense officials said that judging by similar practice in the past, the announcement was an indirect claim of responsibility by the Salafis for firing the rocket into Israel.
As in the past, the organizations presumably seek to signal to Hamas that it will have to pay for its violent suppression of the groups, which are capable of dragging Gaza into an unwanted military escalation with Israel.
The threat comes at a particularly sensitive time for Hamas: an election campaign to determine the movement’s next leader (presumably Ismail Haniyeh). It also comes against the backdrop of a surprising tightening of relations between Hamas and Egypt. That development has already eased passage through the Rafah crossing and triggered reports of progress toward a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel.
For precisely these reasons one might think that Hamas, despite continuing to spend great efforts and huge sums in developing long-range rockets and building attack tunnels, doesn’t want a war with Israel.
Israel, however, hasn’t changed its approach since the end of the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014. Each time the Salafists fire, Israel strikes at Hamas and announces that it considers it responsible for maintaining calm in the Strip.
It must be admitted: This policy has generally been effective. Even though Israel destroys Hamas observation posts along the border, the group responds not by attacking Israel but by trying to rein in the Salafi rocket units.
But this time the Israeli response included a few separate sorties by the air force on a decent number of targets. Counter to what might have been inferred from some of the reports, it seems the goal this time was not to hit a tunnel but to strike a varied list of targets in order to send a message.
Army officials argued that the message had to be sent after a number of unexplained incidents over the past few weeks. These events caused no injuries but suggest that Hamas may be giving freer rein to the rocket units and may believe it can continue to do so with impunity.
A different possible explanation has to do with the policy introduced by Avigdor Lieberman when he became defense minister some eight months ago: retaliating fiercely to every violent incident in Gaza. When he was appointed, Lieberman promised that the next confrontation with Hamas would end with a decisive Israeli victory and the end of the Hamas government in the Strip.
It was onto this bonfire that cabinet members Yoav Galant and Naftali Bennett poured oil Tuesday. Galant told Army Radio that Israel must be ready for a confrontation in Gaza this spring. Bennett, speaking at a memorial service in Sderot, said “the next round of fighting is a question of when, not if, and this time we must win. Not a draw, but rather a clear victory.”
Of course, there’s also a political context to the ministers’ remarks: preparations for the next election as well as anticipation of the state comptroller’s report on the 2014 war. That document is expected to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the top of the Israel Defense Forces in dealing with the Hamas tunnels.
We can only hope that defense officials can explain this context to their Egyptian interlocutors so that Cairo can calm the fears of Hamas leaders in Gaza. It’s doubtful Israel needs another war in the Strip just because each party misreads the intentions of the other.