Analysis

No One Wants a War in Gaza, but the First Israeli Casualty Could Change Everything

With deterrence measures used since the 2014 Gaza war appearing less effective, Israel is operating on borrowed time

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during clashes with Israeli troops in the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Israel, December 29, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

There is a growing sense that Israel may find itself sliding toward another military confrontation in the Gaza Strip, despite the still-valid assumption that it has no interest in one, and the highly likely belief that Hamas doesn’t, either. Sporadic rocket and mortar fire from Gaza has been going on for a month, ever since U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in early December. The fact that there have been no casualties from the 45 rockets and shells launched from the Strip, half of which fell inside Israel, is the main reason that the country’s leaders can refrain from taking harsher retaliatory measures.

However, with respect to Gaza, Israel is operating on borrowed time. Heads of local councils along the border and in the Negev are patient, as long as there are no casualties and the cycle of sirens and people running to shelters is not exacting a psychological toll on the residents. The army has managed to fine-tune the mechanism that alerts residents of an area likely to be hit by a rocket, which excludes many communities from being notified each time another one is launched.

Until this week the fire was attributed to Salafists, the smaller and more extreme groups operating in Gaza, with claims that Hamas was trying to restrain them. The rockets indeed stopped for a few days but was renewed this week with a barrage of mortar shells, which landed near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where a memorial ceremony was being held for Sgt. Oron Shaul. The Israel Defense Forces admitted belatedly that the Islamic Jihad, a much larger organization than the Salafists, which is not always willing to obey Hamas directives, was responsible for the incident. Since then the Salafists have also resumed their fire, which now comes every two or three days. What seems like a routine journalistic chronicle from Tel Aviv may again make life intolerable in places like Sderot and Kibbutz Nirim.

Late on Wednesday night the Israel Air Force attacked a different type of target for the first time in this round of escalation. It was defined somewhat mysteriously as a “key terrorist infrastructure target”; the Palestinians also kept silent about it. However, reports of attacks on open agricultural fields in unpopulated areas, along with a statement by a spokesman that the army will continue taking all measures “above and underground,” suggest the logical hunch that the target was a tunnel.

If this is true, this would be the third tunnel struck by the IDF in the last two and a half months. In late October Israel destroyed an attack tunnel built by Islamic Jihad; 14 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members died with its collapse. Last month an attack tunnel built by Hamas was destroyed, without loss of life. It is patently obvious that the army’s construction of an underground barrier against tunnels, new technology and a change in the operation of intelligence teams are gradually depriving the Palestinians of their main offensive weapon, which they have pinned their hopes on in recent years.

These are noteworthy operational achievements. One can understand the IDF’s position that it would be best to continue building the barrier – which will take a year to complete, with another year to install the complementary components – rather than getting embroiled in another war with no strategic goal. With Israel finding it difficult to decide whether it wants to topple the Hamas government or just show the public that it’s not afraid of the enemy, it’s no wonder that senior military personnel prefer caution. In the background, Egypt is continuing its efforts to reconcile Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Netanyahu government, although not comfortable with the (slim for now) chances for renewed Palestinian unity, does not want to be blamed for foiling it. It wants a conflict with its close allies in Cairo even less.

The trouble is that Israel’s room for maneuvering is decreasing. Its methods of deterrence, such as limited strikes against Hamas so that it restrains the Salafists, which served it well for over three years since the 2014 Gaza war, no longer seem effective. A possible alternative is direct strikes against Islamic Jihad targets such as camps and offices, rocket launching squads or even senior commanders. In the absence of any other exit strategy from the tensions, this may be the option that is chosen. However, intelligence agencies cannot guarantee political leaders that this will necessarily restrain Islamic Jihad, particularly if its Iranian patrons view an escalation in Gaza favorably at this point in time.

In the meantime, with the advent of winter and the continuing deterioration of living conditions in the Strip, Israel has taken a step to ease the situation. Palestinian Authority leaders were persuaded to renew payments for supplying electricity to Gaza and Israel is expected to increase the amount it delivers in the coming days. The fact that the right flank of the coalition is silent on this matter and – as compared to the opposition parties – is not urging Netanyahu to take harsher military measures in Gaza attests to the fact that cabinet members are getting a full picture of the complexity of the situation in the enclave. They, too, are aware of the limited means at Israel’s disposal, given that it doesn’t want to slide toward a war at this point in time.