Mutual Deterrence Between Israel and Gaza Is Working

Both sides still hold a few aces. Israel can reoccupy the Strip if it decides to do so, and Hamas has rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

Yesterday was the fourth day of the current round of fighting in the south, and it appeared that both Israel and Hamas were trying to restore calm. While official spokesmen on both sides threatened the enemy and signaled their determination to keep fighting no matter what, in practice there has been restraint on the ground.

Israel stopped its air attacks on the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning and has adopted a defensive stance of intercepting rockets using the Iron Dome system. Also, on rare occasions, it targets rocket-launching teams - if they are identified at the time of the launch. Meanwhile, the Palestinians fired two rockets yesterday and seven mortars, a sharp drop compared to the weekend.

Iron Dome - Tal Cohen
Tal Cohen

The calm may be restored gradually since the mutual deterrence appears to be working, at least partially. Both sides still hold a few aces. Israel can reoccupy the Strip if it decides to do so, and Hamas has rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, neither side is eager to use its ace because of the heavy price it will have to pay. Also, neither side sees any clear gain in seriously escalating the situation.

However, an informal cease-fire, even if it is achieved, will be less stable than the situation that dominated relations between the two sides after Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. The control that Hamas exercises over the small Palestinian factions of militants in Gaza has weakened. Meanwhile, the group's political wing has had a tough time influencing decision-making by the group's military wing.

Because the situation remains tense, especially among the local cells of militants who hope to avenge the deaths of their comrades (more than 20 Palestinians were killed in the latest round of fighting ), there is the danger that continued rocket attacks will result in civilian casualties. This would automatically reignite the front.

Contrary to the confident rhetoric, the Israel Defense Forces has been very careful about using force in recent days. This too signals a lack of interest in a broad confrontation at this time. Iron Dome has a perfect record so far in intercepting missiles.

In addition to the pride in the technological achievement, there is an important political lesson. If there had been funerals in Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon due to the Katyusha rockets fired at those cities - the ones that were intercepted by Iron Dome - Benjamin Netanyahu's government would have been under tremendous public pressure to respond with a ground offensive.

Defense officials yesterday were quick to claim credit for the Iron Dome's first successes. It's a legitimate claim, especially in view of the excessive criticism of those who decided to procure the system. On the other hand, the volleys of Katyushas, and the success at intercepting them, should serve as a wake-up call. Israel must quickly fund and produce several more batteries and equip them with many hundreds of interception missiles.

There's no point in waiting for the aid from Uncle Sam. It's best to invest money from the Israeli budget, beyond the $205 million that the United States has promised and whose arrival has been delayed. In any case, the videos showing the interception of missiles help Israel sell the system to other countries; this will help fund the Israeli procurement.

There are two additional elements to the relative Israeli success in the past few days. The first is Iron Dome's contribution to the quick identification and location of launching sites, which allows the IDF to quickly respond from the air and target the launching crew. The second is the improved protection that residents near the Gaza Strip have acquired in recent years because of their secure rooms and bomb shelters.

This protection, along with a strong response to Home Front Command's instructions, are critical in preventing casualties. Troubling is that this kind of response is not to be found in the larger cities. The excitement of people who are quick to show up to watch the interception of a missile over Ashkelon may still cost lives.