After the heaviest concentration of shelling ever on southern Israel – worse than the highest daily numbers during Operation Protective Edge – the most right-wing security cabinet ever decided on Tuesday to pursue another cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The official announcement was formulated in vague language (and instructed the Israel Defense Forces “to continue operations as necessary.”) But its significance became clear in the afternoon: The IDF held its fire, as did the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip, which admitted it openly.
This occurred despite much of the rhetoric being broadcast since the current round of strikes began Sunday evening. The decision was made despite the public pressure and increasing media criticism of what was being portrayed as a feeble government response. It may cause some political damage. Nevertheless, it seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined. In a manner completely congruent with his remarks to journalists in Paris earlier this week, Netanyahu prefers quiet over war in Gaza and he is prepared to take no small risk to achieve it.
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The decision involved an argument in the security cabinet. In contrast to the first leaks, ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett made sure to stress after the discussion that they do not believe in an arrangement. On the other hand, Netanyahu is supported by the heads of all the security services, who believe that there is no justification for going to war now in Gaza, even after the heavy barrages of the last two days.
Netanyahu has expressed his line of thought throughout this period: He believes a ground operation in Gaza is liable to foul up and exact a heavy price, and that no one will assume control of the Strip even if Israel removes Hamas from there. There were probably other reasons as well. It appears the prime minister believes he can continue to promote relations with the Gulf states after his public visit to Oman and perhaps use those ties to channel money into the Strip and ease the infrastructure problems there. And there is also the Iranian threat in Syria and Lebanon, which Netanyahu believes requires attention and resources.
The prime minister is taking a considerable risk. Efforts at reaching a long-term arrangement can go awry again, as has happened frequently. There is also the impression that Hamas leaders believe they can gradually raise the intensity of military action against Israel without paying much of a price. But the security cabinet decision restores quiet to the Gaza-border communities, at least until the next eruption.
The numbers recorded up to Tuesday afternoon are simply insane: More than 450 rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip. Most were aimed at the small border-area communities but some were fired at cities in the south. One could also detect an effort by Hamas and the Palestinian organizations to challenge Israel’s defense systems. Iron Dome batteries intercepted many of the projectiles aimed at populated areas. But a rocket that hit an old building with no security rooms caused casualties – one dead and two critically wounded – and there was a serious breach in the IDF’s security apparatus that allowed an anti-tank missile to blow up a bus near the border, seriously wounding a soldier.
The Palestinian response came several hours after the botched IDF special forces operation deep in the Gaza Strip east of Khan Yunis on Sunday night. Hamas did not suffice with boasting that it had rebuffed an Israeli infiltration and killed a senior officer in an elite unit. The organization wanted to signal that its response to deep penetration of its territory (and, from its point of view, the violation of its sovereignty) must be more severe. This was essentially an effort to dictate new rules of the game: Even secret activity exposed in their territory – of the type the IDF conducts along all of Israel’s borders – will lead to a heavy bombardment of Israeli territory.
Hamas’ decision to respond sharply may have been influenced by Netanyahu’s repeated statements that he isn’t interested in an escalation. Hamas leaders themselves seem to have been surprised by the limited Israeli response to rocket barrages in each of the earlier rounds of violence in recent months. As a result, the Palestinians are growing increasingly bold.
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The anti-tank missile blunder
The most worrisome event was recorded for all to see, with Hamas posting and distributing a video of the attack on the Israeli bus near the border of northern Gaza on Monday afternoon. The video shows clearly how the bus driver entered an area with absolutely no barrier between him and the border, so that it was completely exposed to a direct hit by an anti-tank missile. Right in front of it were several smaller vans, most of them apparently military ones, as they were surrounded by soldiers.
The missile blew up the bus and seriously wounded a soldier who’d been standing near it. The bus was carrying reinforcements that had been summoned to the area, and dozens of soldiers had gotten off the bus only a few minutes earlier. One can understand from this video that Hamas’ anti-tank cell is very familiar with the details of troop movements and chose to fire the missile at the appropriate time.
The video is both chilling and aggravating. With all due caution, one must say this is not how an army in a state of combat is supposed to operate. These lessons should have been learned after previous bloody incidents of anti-tank fire during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza (2012) and from the incident on the slopes of Mount Dov on the Lebanese border in which an officer and a soldier were killed in January 2015. Military doctrine calls for keeping the units’ staging areas beyond the range of the enemy’s heavy artillery. In Hamas’ case this means mortar fire up to a range of five kilometers. This is ignored repeatedly, creating unnecessary exposure to mortar fire and this time to a focused anti-tank ambush, even though this already cost lives and generated criticism during Protective Edge. One would expect the IDF to be more meticulous in its handling of movements close to the fence; this was a serious error that requires thorough investigation. On Monday night the IDF announced the appointment of an inquiry committee headed by a brigadier general to investigate.
Even if Israel seeks a prolonged cease-fire, which is certainly preferable to war, it is possible that in retrospect it may be necessary to reevaluate the decision to proceed with such haste. As things look at the moment, Hamas is signaling that it has the upper hand, and the Israeli moves have not yet reminded it of the actual gap in capabilities between the sides. This is a problematic point of departure for reaching a long-term cease-fire.