“If Hamas’ leaders don’t stop the fire, they must be dealt a harsh blow and pay a heavy price. What we’ve seen so far is just the introduction. It will get worse if they don’t come to their senses. We must show them we won’t tolerate terror from Gaza.”
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These words weren’t uttered this week after a rocket hit a residential area in Sderot, but in April 2006, less than a year after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The quote, in an interview with Haaretz, was made by the General Staff’s operations chief at the time, Brig. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, now the whole military's chief.
Ten years and three large military operations later, the situation in Gaza doesn’t seem to have changed much. Israel still holds Hamas responsible for the rocket fire from the Strip. Hamas, since the end of the last war two years ago, isn’t launching rockets, but sometimes smaller Palestinian groups do, and Israel responds with anything from harsh rhetoric to a limited military effort.
The Qassam rocket that hit Sderot on Sunday triggered a stronger response; Israel dropped more than 50 bombs on targets in northern Gaza. Palestinian casualties were low – two people were lightly hurt – but the attacks caught Hamas’ leaders off guard and raised alarm both in Gaza and the Israeli communities nearby.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s move made an impression on the Israeli media, which described the retaliation as a ratcheting-up of the situation. In fact, a political need coincided with a tactical opportunity.
Lieberman believes in taking a harder line on Hamas. He must also thwart political and media criticism because he hasn’t kept his promise from when he was in the opposition to strike Hamas more harshly. Also, the military wanted to destroy certain targets in Gaza.
Hamas’ low number of casualties and its more urgent agenda – the West Bank elections against Fatah on October 8 – let it limit this round of fire and not respond to Israel’s move. Israel will be tested again the next time a rocket reaches its territory; an airstrike killing Palestinians could push Hamas to a sharper reaction, risking an escalation.
The rocket that hit Sderot marked the second incident in the past few weeks when Israel’s air defense system failed, even though it’s probably the most advanced of its kind in the world. The army doesn’t normally explain why a rocket wasn’t intercepted, though it must be said, northern Gaza’s proximity to Sderot makes it difficult to head off rockets, whose interception from further afield was some 90 percent in the 2014 war.
In the previous incident a Russian drone entered Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights from Syria, apparently by mistake. Fighter planes were scrambled and Patriot missiles were fired, but to no avail.
In 2011 a team appointed by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee established that Israel needs 13 Iron Dome batteries for adequate protection from missiles and rockets, in addition to the Arrow and David’s Sling systems. In 2014 about 10 batteries were deployed. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked by the U.S. Congress for the project in recent years, it appears the number of batteries is still short.
Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak often speaks about the need to bolster the interception systems, in response to the increasing threat of Hezbollah missiles. Last week Barak slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the way he handled the military-aid agreement with the United States. He cited Netanyahu’s “most worrisome exposure of Israel to a major security challenge.”
The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, played down the demand by committee members from the opposition to have Barak explain what he meant. Was Barak implying that Israel was too slow in acquiring the batteries?
In any case, Netanyahu has addressed the issue frequently of late. In several meetings with the media – this week he had three long ones, bringing the total to 11 in four weeks – Netanyahu complimented himself for his farsightedness, noting that already in March 2012 he had ordered a quicker pace in acquiring the defense systems.
People from the State Comptroller's Office who spoke to Netanyahu before writing the report on Hamas’ tunnels in the 2014 war were apparently surprised when he brought up his moves on the missile defense systems. Netanyahu’s confidants said they didn’t know what Barak was talking about and that no harm had been done to Israel’s security by the prime minister’s bad relations with Barack Obama and by delaying the military-aid agreement. But Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the rocket issue might mean he may have an idea of what Barak was talking about.
In any case, it appears Netanyahu has developed a pattern. He was the first to detect the need for firefighting planes, the need to up the pace in acquiring Iron Dome batteries, and now the need to prepare for the tunnel threat. If those below him – in the military or at the defense or finance ministries – don’t implement Netanyahu’s vision fast enough, it’s no longer his responsibility.