The relatively exceptional incident yesterday afternoon – the firing of a rocket at Sderot – doesn’t seem to reflect any kind of escalation between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
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Israel and the Hamas government in the Strip are very familiar with the unwritten rules established when the last military confrontation between them ended two years ago. They would prefer to stick to the existing reality and avoid a renewed conflict that would probably not be to either side’s advantage.
According to the initial reports from the Strip, the group responsible for the rocket fire was the Abu Ali Mustafa brigades, a local organization that has declared itself the military wing of the The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The group is named for the Popular Front’s general secretary, who was assassinated by Israel in Ramallah in 2001.
In its announcement, the group said that it had fired other rockets, but those apparently landed within the Strip. The rocket fire might be connected to the hunger strike of Bilal Kayed, a member of the Popular Front in the West Bank, who was put in administrative detention just as he was about to be freed from serving a lengthy prison term, but it might also be connected to internal struggles in the Gaza Strip. As far as is known, Hamas was not behind the rocket fire; nor was it behind other recent launches in May and July. Since Operation Protective Edge ended two years ago this month, the group has only fired one mortar round at an open area along the border with Israel, in response to Israel Defense Forces’ activity within the Strip to locate attack tunnels. After such rocket fire, Hamas tends to immediately arrest operatives from the groups involved (though they are usually freed pretty quickly) and sends urgent messages to Israel, generally through Egypt, that it wasn’t involved in the fire.
The Israeli response was commensurate. According to the Palestinians, a tank and a drone that were in the area opened fire at Hamas positions in the border region and hit a water reservoir in the area of Beit Hanoun, across from Sderot.
That’s the typical response to such incidents and it has a dual purpose; conveying a deterrent message to the Hamas government while destroying its military wing’s tactical assets. That wing has set up a line of positions and observation posts only a few hundred meters from the border with Israel. Every such IDF attack, conducted on the basis of a list prepared by the Southern Command, harms Hamas’ means of tracking and collecting information.
The missing variable from Israel’s perspective relates to Hamas’ decision-making process. For some time now, Hamas’ diplomatic wing, led in Gaza by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and its military wing, whose current strongman is Yihye Sanwar, have different, almost conflicting, agendas.
While the politicians are trying to find ways to reconcile with Egypt and assure steady funding from the Gulf States so they can pay Gaza’s civil servants, the terror operatives’ objectives are totally different. The heads of the military wing would prefer to maintain ties with Iran and preserve a deterrent balance with Israel, even as they plan the next military campaign.
Given that Israeli intelligence had a hard time cracking Hamas’ intentions in real time during Protective Edge, one must relate to all the prevailing assessments cautiously.
There has also been a certain change in Israel’s constraints. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reiterating that he will not accept a new reality of “rocket drizzles” as has happened along the Gaza border in the past, but in the same breath he has signaled that he isn’t interested in another war.
The relatively new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, backed himself into a corner with his threats against Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders when he sat in the opposition, but he is having a hard time keeping his word now that he has assumed a ministerial post.
Meanwhile, just yesterday it was permitted to publish that explosive devices smuggled by Hezbollah had been found near the northern Israeli border town of Metulla.
These events on both borders remind us that even during a period of relative quiet – and the summer of 2016 has been one of the quietest, security-wise, in a decade – the situation is very fluid. What happens now depends largely on the degree of insight and good judgment exercised by the Israeli leadership..