In Gaza Fighting With Israel, Hamas Has Gotten the Message

Israel’s two major Gaza offensives in recent years have made clear to both sides that military operations are effective for only a limited time.

Smoke trails of rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza Strip.
Smoke trails of rocket fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza Strip towards Israel (archive photo). AP

The rocket volleys on Israel’s south and the government’s stereotypical response seem a different front than the search for the three kidnapped teens in the West Bank. But it would be a mistake to ignore that the belligerent dialogue over the past few days regarding Gaza is both influencing and being influenced by events in the West Bank.

Separatist factions, not necessarily Hamas, are apparently trying to punish Israel for the wave of arrests in the West Bank. They also may be attempting three other things: to exploit the chance to prove that Hamas’ control in Gaza is weakening, to take a stand against Hamas’ reconciliation with Fatah, and maybe even to challenge Hamas given the Strip’s severe economic problems.

But the Palestinians – in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab countries – perceive Israel’s attacks as a direct continuation of its battle against Hamas in the West Bank. Israel is sticking to the approach that restraint is interpreted as weakness, so every attack on its territory must be met with a doubly powerful response. But given the volatile situation in the territories, this approach needs to be reexamined, or at least tweaked before the mayhem worsens.

One can assume that no party in the conflict — Hamas, the Palestinian Authority or Israel — has an interest in escalation or being dragged into a broader clash. But local incidents often expand in unintended ways. It’s enough to hear Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s call to reoccupy Gaza to get a sense of the abyss into which Israel could fall.

There’s no doubt that these remarks reflect not only Lieberman’s position but that of many segments of the public. It’s a short road to a populist political decision to appease the revenge-seekers and lead Israel into yet another military campaign, one that would paralyze not only life in Gaza but the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis in the south.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to stop the military and political momentum and make do with the message that has already been conveyed to Gaza. Two major Gaza operations in recent years, Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, made clear to both Hamas’ leaders and Israelis that military operations are effective for only a limited time.

They also proved that if the parties want to, they can forge informal agreements and that restraint can yield results that benefit the civilians on both sides. These lessons need to be in the front of the prime minister’s mind.