Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was exceptional. The air force attacked a relatively large number of targets in the heaviest offensive since the end of the last Hamas-Israel war two years ago.
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Neither Israel nor Hamas have said exactly what was attacked, though both sides presumably know. It’s reasonable to assume that aside from considerations of deterrence, Israel decided to seize a tactical opportunity to deprive Hamas of operational assets. The launch of a rocket at Sderot by a Palestinian terrorist group provided sufficient justification for doing so.
Despite the magnitude of the assault, Israel clearly made an effort to avoid hitting civilians. Palestinians reported that one person was lightly wounded and a few others suffered from shock. Therefore, it seems Hamas feels under no obligation to respond. For now, both sides would apparently still prefer to avoid another large-scale conflict.
One question that remains unanswered is what influence the new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is having on Israel’s policy. Under his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, the policy-setting troika comprising the prime minister, defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff were in fundamental agreement. Senior defense officials concurred with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in wanting to avoid another war in Gaza, especially another ground war, and in believing that ousting the territory’s Hamas-run government was not worth the risks.
But Lieberman thinks otherwise. Shortly before entering the Defense Ministry, he made several aggressive statements about Hamas. Now, his critics in the media and his political rivals are using those statements to attack him for being soft.
Defense decisions aren’t all political. Nevertheless, it’s hard to rule out the possibility that this criticism had some effect on the decision about Sunday’s exceptional airstrikes.
Is this new offensive policy liable to lead to another war? Netanyahu shows no interest in any such thing, and he is apparently the one who makes the final decisions.
Hamas also has its reasons for favoring restraint. Palestinian sources in Gaza said that Hamas security personnel arrested several members of the Palestinian group suspected of being behind the rocket fire. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, said yesterday that from Hamas’ standpoint, the latest round of violence is over. Similar messages were sent to Israel via back-channel mediators.
It seems Hamas’ top priority is winning a convincing victory in the Palestinian municipal elections scheduled for October 8. Hamas surprised the Palestinian Authority (and Israeli intelligence) by deciding to participate in the elections.
Senior defense officials warned the PA that it would be a mistake to hold elections under current conditions. PA officials believe their Fatah party will win easily, but Hamas has previously demonstrated its ability to run an effective political campaign, even in the PA-controlled West Bank.
Hamas also has another reason for favoring restraint against Israel. The organization’s leadership is happy that its salary crisis has been temporarily solved, after Israel allowed the Gulf States to transfer funds to pay tens of thousands of civil servants in Gaza.
It’s even possible that the Netanyahu government’s current policy – a PR war against the Palestinian Authority overseas, foot-dragging on the diplomatic process (a policy shared by PA President Mahmoud Abbas) and a modicum of military friction with Hamas in Gaza – could actually boost Hamas’ popularity in both the West Bank and Gaza, thereby helping Hamas prepare for its head-to-head political clash with Fatah in the elections.