The defense minister doesn’t want it. The army chief thinks this is not the right time for a large-scale operation. Even Hamas isn’t prepared to face a broad military incursion and continues to ask for a ceasefire through repeated secret messages.
How odd. Nobody wants to see escalation in Gaza, yet everyone is doing everything to make it happen. Each side is convinced that it’s able to control the height of the flames and dictate the pace of deterioration. However, both sides are fooling themselves. What we have here is a gradual loss of control process that leads both sides to an inevitable clash at the least expected time.
Ever since Hamas’ Gaza coup, we have seen an escalating war of attrition being conducted on the Gaza border. Israel has been carrying out a series of intensive military operations meant to push the sovereign in the Strip, that is, Hamas, into a complete ceasefire on Israel’s terms. In other words, Israel demands complete quiet from Hamas, but it also continues the economic siege and diplomatic isolation aimed at weakening Hamas to the point of losing its hold on power.
One of the important levers in accelerating this process is the effort to exact a high Palestinian casualty toll that is meant to prevent them from establishing themselves militarily on the border and deter them from carrying out attacks.
In November 2007, 36 Palestinians were killed in clashes with the IDF, and in December the number of Palestinian losses rose to more than 60. In the first two weeks of January, more than 55 Palestinians have already been killed. Overall, more than 370 Palestinians were killed in the Strip during 2007, most of them armed. Most of them were killed in clashes with the IDF in the months following the Gaza coup.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that the IDF settled the score Tuesday. During Bush’s visit, the army was asked to lower its profile. Hamas and Islamic Jihad took advantage of the opportunity and fired mortar shells and Qassams. Yesterday they paid the price for it.
The IDF registered a successful day in the framework of the policy to wear down the other side: More than 18 people killed and more than 50 wounded, most of them armed, and virtually all of them members of Hamas, who up until a few weeks ago were off limits in terms of IDF operations.
Yet what will be the point where Hamas will reach the conclusion that it has nothing to lose? Another100 casualties? Another 200? Another 300? Nobody knows.
What is Hamas’ breaking point
In addition to this lever, Israel utilizes other levers: Undermining the financial system, economy, and quality of life of Gaza residents. There are also targeted eliminations of military activists – mostly those belonging to Islamic Jihad – yet recently Hamas members were also targeted. The lever of surgical strikes against senior members of the political echelon in the Strip has not been utilized yet. The same is true for the lever of massively undermining Gaza infrastructure and government symbols. Yet this will come too, and sooner than we think. We are just a step away from it.
At which point will the combination of levers utilized by Israel produce the breaking point that would lead Hamas to breach the rules of the game and drag the IDF into Gaza? This precisely is the question security officials are grappling with: How far can we go without reaching that breaking point?
The political leadership instructed the army to operate aggressively and intensively without being dragged into Gaza and occupying territory. Yet this is a fragile formula that is very difficult to maintain over time.
Nineteen casualties in one day are still not the reason that would lead Hamas to change its policy. Yet yesterday, Hamas signaled what breaching the rules of the game means to it: Sniper fire on farmers, a Grad rocket on Ashkelon, and more than 30 Qassam rockets fired at Gaza-region communities, mostly in Sderot’s direction.
Those were merely exampled. Defense officials estimate that Hamas can double these numbers and fire dozens of rockets a day for an extended period of time – even while the IDF carries out very successful operations.
Had Hamas wanted to breach the rules of the game yesterday, it would have fired not only Grads at Ashkelon, but also the Iranian rockets it received. Meanwhile, it’s not doing that, yet defense officials estimate that the group will attempt to carry out some kind of an ostentatious act of revenge, against IDF soldiers if possible; something that would not require Israel to atomically embark on a full-scale operation in the Strip.
There is a military option, and a diplomatic option. Both of them are uncertain, both of them are temporary, and both of them come with a price. The government must decide what’s better for us.