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Risking Escalation in Gaza Strip, Israel Sends Hamas a Strong Message

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Israeli policemen remove the remains of the rocket fired by Hamas in the Gaza Strip at the northern Israeli town of Sderot, on August 21, 2016.
Israeli policemen remove the remains of the rocket fired by Hamas in the Gaza Strip at the northern Israeli town of Sderot, on August 21, 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

On Sunday night, at around 10:15 P.M., Israel made what was probably its first stab at changing the rules of the game in the Gaza Strip.

Since Israel's Operation Protective Edge two years ago, matters had been ambling along more or less along familiar lines, with eruptions of tension breaking out on the border every few months. Then on Sunday, some Palestinian organization, apparently one of the smaller factions that does not comply with Hamas, fired a rocket at the southern town of Sderot, causing some damage but no casualties.

The Israel Defense Forces reacted with tank fire and sent a drone to hit Hamas targets, near Beit Hanun, a town near Gaza’s northeastern border.

Israel's response, aimed at Hamas outposts and observation positions near the border, was no different than usual. And there were no casualties. The reaction had two aims: to clarify that Israel views the Hamas government in the Strip as responsible for maintaining quiet along the border, and to exact a tactical price from the Islamist organization – impairing its ability to collect intelligence about Israeli army movements in that area for the benefit of its military arm.

This is more or less how Israel has retaliated in the past when Palestinian organizations shot a missile at the northern Negev.

But then late last night came more attacks by the Israel Air Force, broader in scope. This time, Hamas targets in the northern Strip were hit. According to initial reports from Gaza, the bombardments caused more damage than usual and echoed throughout the area.

It is still too early say how Hamas will react to Israel’s deliberate escalation. But for the nonce the sides, however much they loathe one another, share an interest: to keep the border quiescent.

The change in the manner of Israel’s retaliation apparently has to do with the new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Before assuming the post, Lieberman urged the use of tough measures against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Afterward, Lieberman somewhat scaled back his public rhetoric but reiterated his basic position, which is that the government in the Strip should be toppled and if matters deteriorate to the point of a broad military confrontation – Israel should take action to achieve that end.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also commented recently that he would not accept even the odd rocket attack. However, as he made clear throughout Operation Protective Edge as well, the premier sees no point in launching a broad IDF operation. He doesn’t want to get embroiled in yet another Gaza war. Lieberman, on the other hand, seems to want to send Hamas a more biting message, even if it involves a risk of escalation.

What Israel is up to will become clearer in the days to come, but much depends on the system of checks and balances between the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff.

The main, missing factor in the equation, from Israel’s point of view, is how decisions are made within Hamas. For some time now, the organization's political arm, led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and its military arm have had separate, almost contradictory agendas.

While the politicians are looking for ways to appease Egypt and ensure that the Gulf states will keep paying the salaries of Gaza’s civil servants, the terrorists’ purposes are something else entirely. Hamas’ military leaders would rather renew relations with Tehran and maintain a semblance of deterrence against Israel while preparing for the next war.

Since Israeli intelligence had difficulties understanding Hamas’ intentions in real-time during the last war, in 2014, the prevailing assessments should be treated with caution too. Meanwhile, it is now permissible to reveal that roadside bombs that Hezbollah smuggled into Israel from Lebanon were hidden last month in the northern city of Metula.

Recent events on both borders, in the south with Gaza and the north with Lebanon, serve as a reminder that even during periods of relative quiet – and the summer of 2016 is one of the quietest we’ve known in a decade – the situation is extremely fluid. The outcome depends to a large degree on the wisdom and discretion that Israel's leadership demonstrates.