Saving Face in the South

The biggest worry isn't just that Israel's south was peppered by rockets yet again, it's who was doing the peppering.

The most worrying aspect of the massive rocket fire into Israel yesterday was the identity of the groups that claimed responsibility. This time it wasn't radical Palestinian Al-Qaida offshoots, but mainstream groups in Gaza: Islamic Jihad and ruling party Hamas.

No Israelis were killed or wounded in the attacks, which were a response to an Israel Air Force strike that severely wounded two members of a radical militant group, as well as several civilians in Rafah. The Hamas leadership's dilemma is that many of these radical groups are "jointly owned and operated": They identify with Al-Qaida but sometimes take orders from Hamas.

Some of the militants are former Hamas members who continue to collect salaries from the organization. This lets Hamas exert some control over them and sometimes use them as fronts to strike Israel.

The incidents yesterday morning were the third of their kind in the last two months. Hamas and Islamic Jihad considered responding to the previous two attacks, but ultimately decided against. This time they responded with rocket fire.

They apparently took action for two reasons. First, they were concerned that failure to be aggressive against Israel would harm their standing in Gaza. Second, they assumed that the exchange of a few blows could pass without a full-scale escalation.

Israel too, for the time being, has acted accordingly. As expected, the Israel Defense Forces responded yesterday morning via IAF strikes on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The status quo remains undisturbed, however, as neither Israel nor Hamas has any interest in a prolonged conflict.

Most of all, Hamas seeks to maintain its control over Gaza. It also does not want to anger anger Egypt. Despite Hamas' close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the Egyptian regime hails a well, the relationship is complicated because Cairo does not want to be dragged into increased tensions with Israel.

Gaza is fairly low on Israel's list of priorities, compared to the dangers looming in the north (Hezbollah and Syria ), or the threat posed by terror from the Sinai Peninsula. On the other hand, events in Sinai are what motivated Israel to strike Rafah on Sunday in the first place.

As sensitive relations with Egypt are preventing Israel from a preemptive strike on terror groups in Sinai, Israel is targeting the "Gaza tails" of those organizations. When Israel uncovers signs of cooperation between Gaza militants and cells in Sinai to attack Israel, the IDF hits targets in Gaza.

Those attacks risk escalating the situation in the Negev. The latest flare-up has not yet spun out of control, but we still need a day or two to see if this round has ended.

There is some correlation between Israel's challenges in Gaza and the escalation between Turkey and Syria. Turkish citizens near the border with Syria are being harmed by the Syrian regime's actions (for which Syria apologizes while denying that the artillery strikes were intentional ). Turkey, however, responded with excessive force against Syria, as Israel tends to do with Gaza. But now it has to be concerned about a full-scale escalation.