When it comes to the confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel seems to find itself in a situation like that of Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." Murray plays a TV weatherman who, after covering an event on February 2, gets caught in a time loop, endlessly repeating the same day, trapped in a vicious cycle that no one but he notices. (And sure enough, Israeli politicians and defense officials also now use the term "groundhog day" to describe a recurring situation.)
That's more or less what's happening to Israel in Gaza. Since March 30, when the weekly Palestinian demonstrations along the border fence began, tensions in the Strip have been notched up significantly. Once every few weeks they erupt into a "round": a day or two when Hamas fires hundreds of rockets at Israeli communities on the Gaza border (usually in reaction to the killing of members of its military wing). Israel responds with dozens of airstrikes, and Egypt and the UN envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, intervene and achieve a partial cease-fire – until the next round.
That's what happened this week too, but this time it stemmed from a misunderstanding on the Israeli side. On Tuesday morning, senior Hamas officials, apparently some from abroad who came to Gaza for consultations on international efforts to achieve an interim agreement with Israel, visited a Hamas naval commando outpost in the northern Strip. They were there to observe a demonstration of the commandos' capabilities.
An Israeli army lookout noticed two snipers on a tower and saw them opening fire. Although the tower is about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the fence, there were concerns (which proved mistaken) that the shooting could endanger Israeli troops along the fence. The Israeli commanders in the sector decided to strike, and the two Hamas snipers were killed by tank fire.
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The Israeli intelligence gap that contributed to the incident is worrisome. Military Intelligence should have known about such an exercise, or at least kept track of the movements of the Hamas officials from abroad. The army admits that had it known that this was a Hamas exercise, it would not have opened fire.
Hamas would certainly have found another excuse for firing rockets sooner or later, but this was still an unnecessary mistake. The excuse that the outpost is "behind a high hillock" isn't convincing. More can be expected of a country that invests billions each year in intelligence.
Hamas threatened a response and on Wednesday delivered – first with sniper fire at the fence in the afternoon, which didn't cause any casualties, and later with rocket barrages throughout the evening and the night.
By Thursday morning, 180 rockets had been shot; a woman on the Israeli side was moderately wounded. More than 20 civilians were hospitalized for shrapnel wounds and shock. This was the most massive shelling of Israel in recent months.
Hamas is still talking about "calculated firing." Al Jazeera on Thursday even deemed the escalation part of the negotiations. The Israeli response has also been measured. Although military spokespeople are pointing to the many targets attacked by Israel – almost 150 – the small number of Palestinian casualties and the fact that there was no attempt to strike at senior Hamas military commanders attest to the restraint.
A senior official from the General Staff told reporters Thursday about steps the army was taking: deployment of additional Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, a small mobilization of reservists to reinforce the batteries, preparations for the dispatch of additional ground forces to the Southern Command, strict instructions to residents of communities near Gaza to use caution – and if necessary, even preparations to evacuate people from these communities.
The atmosphere near Gaza is tense. The rockets are far more dangerous than the fires that have been started by the incendiary kites and balloons in recent months.
Perhaps worst of all are the dozens of alarm sirens going off at the height of the summer vacation, when the children are at home. Some weekends recently have seen a quiet exodus from border communities. When reports increased of Hamas' intentions to heat things up near the fence, many residents preferred to keep their distance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a series of consultations on Thursday morning, ending with a cabinet meeting. Despite the threats against Hamas, Israel isn't looking for a war in the Strip. The political leaders are concerned about the consequences of sending infantry and tanks into the heart of a densely populated area, including its own losses. They're asking themselves if at the end of such a war, the situation would be better than it is now.
On the other hand, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman are facing increasing criticism from the right, and even from the left, for showing weakness vis-à-vis Hamas. Under pressure from public opinion and the media, they might approve a broader action by the army.
At noon Thursday, the Palestinian factions announced the end of the current round of hostilities. Three hours later, a rocket was fired from Gaza toward Be'er Sheva some 40 kilometers away. This was the first time the city was targeted since the 2014 Gaza war. As in previous cases, it seems Israel is ignoring the factions' declarations in the first hours so as not to admit it's negotiating, even if through mediators, with terrorist organizations.
On Thursday afternoon, the Palestinian factions declared the end of the current round. As in the previous episodes, Israel has ignored these announcements over a period of hours, amid concerns about admitting that it's indirectly negotiating with terror groups. If the halt to Palestinian rocket fire is met by an end to Israeli attacks, we'll know by evening that the round really has ended – until the next time, of course.
If the exchange continues, the reasonable possible direction is a demonstration of what the forces are capable of – this time from our side – with several days of offense making clear to Hamas the damage Israel is capable of if Hamas insists on continuing the hostilities.
There's a measure of logic in such a step. As opposed to the necessity for restraint regarding the kites, here there's genuine danger. At the moment, Hamas believes that it's dictating events and apparently doesn't feel sufficiently threatened. There is still a range of choices in the spectrum between restraint and war.
The danger, as always, lies in the law of unexpected consequences, which works overtime during combat. Losses on the Israeli side, or an unintentional mass killing of Palestinian civilians during an airstrike, could lead to a worse deterioration, even to the point of war.
In the coming hours and days, a race will be on between the military and diplomatic timetables. If Egypt and the United Nations can't achieve a binding "small agreement" – a full cease-fire in exchange for concessions on the movement of goods into the Strip along with enlarging Gaza's fishing zone and perhaps the beginning of economic concessions – Israel will take further military action to force an agreement on Hamas. It's not yet war in Gaza, but we could be slowly heading in that direction.