In the “victory rally” held by Hamas immediately after Givati troops left the Strip, the head of the group’s radical wing, Mahmoud al-Zahar, explicitly threatened that the response to IDF operations will take place within Israeli territory. Therefore, the murderous attack at the Jerusalem yeshiva is likely also related to the latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, Hamas has not yet claimed responsibility for the massacre, but we know that the organization has a well-established infrastructure in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and its vicinity.
The terrorist who carried out the massacre is apparently a resident of the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood in the southeast of the city. It is still unclear whether he was a member of Hamas or another group – he may have even acted on his own initiative – yet the circumstances point in the direction of Hamas’ infrastructure. Members of this infrastructure, just like members of other Palestinian terror groups who reside in the Jerusalem area, are equipped with Israeli ID cards and yellow Israeli license plates that allow them free movement in Israeli territory and in Jewish neighborhoods, which they know well.
The fact that this was a shooting attack may also indicate that this terror attack originated in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, as the Shin Bet’s activity in the capital prevents the establishment of explosive belt labs, which exist in West Bank towns. Aside from the desire to avenge the harsh blows it sustained, Hamas has a vital interest in bringing Israel to curb its strikes and prevent a wide-scale IDF operation in the Strip, in order to avert the regime’s collapse in Gaza. Therefore, Hamas’ leadership is currently attempting to arrange a temporary ceasefire, a “Tahadia,” with Israel via Egyptian mediation.
However, Hamas does not make do with a simple truce. Its leaders want Israel to make an obligation to stop the growing military pressure and siege around Gaza. This would enable Hamas to present the latest round of fighting as a victory and allow it to continue strengthening with no interruptions. In order for Hamas to be able to force its conditions on Egypt and Israel, its leaders are attempting to create a situation whereby they would conduct the ceasefire negotiations from a position of strength. Therefore, the rocket fire from the Strip continues unabated while Hamas draws on all its resources and the inflamed Palestinian mob in order to open another front within Israeli territory.
The massacre in Jerusalem, just like the suicide bombing in Dimona and the riots in east Jerusalem this past week, were carried out in the framework of this strategy. Yet this is not all. We can assume that in the coming days Hamas would attempt to enlist the armed elements in the West Bank, east Jerusalem residents, and also the Islamic Movement in Israel to take part in mass riots that would escalate and possibly turn into a third intifada. It is also possible that Hamas carried out the attack in conjunction with another Palestinian organization, as happened frequently as of late, as different groups combine their infrastructures in order to launch “high quality” attacks. For example, Islamic Jihad fires rockets at Israel with Hamas’ permission.
Don’t rush to retaliateThe first and most urgent mission faced by Israel’s security forces is to prevent mass riots that may break out as a result of inflamed passions in the West Bank, in east Jerusalem, and among Israel’s Arabs. The massacre in Jerusalem, which is considered a great success on the Palestinian street, may prompt many young Palestinians in the territories and in Israel to clash with security forces. We must also prepare for the possibility of riots and acts of revenge by Jews that would result from incitement by rightist elements.
The government faces two possible approaches. The first one is to accept the Egyptian proposal that would be presented after negotiations with Hamas and agree to a ceasefire. On the one hand, such truce would provide some breathing space to Gaza-region communities and enable us to lower the alert level against terror attacks in Israel. On the other hand, such ceasefire would give Hamas a prestigious victory and enable it to grow stronger uninterruptedly. This would mean that in the next round, not only Ashkelon would be in the range of its missiles, but also Ashdod and other communities. A prestigious victory for Hamas may also boost the group’s status in the West Bank and topple what is left of Mahmoud Abbas’ government.
The other option available to the Israeli government and IDF is not to accept Hamas’ conditions and boost the military pressure in the Strip, in accordance with the course outlined by the cabinet in its session Wednesday. Boosting the pressure may lead Hamas to reconsider its modus operandi and agree to Israel’s conditions for a ceasefire. But even if the military pressure ultimately achieves its goals, before that we can expect major escalation of rocket fire on Gaza-region communities, while attempts to carry out terror attacks within Israel and in the territories would also intensify.
Should the government decide to escalate the war against Hamas, we must prepare for an extended period of fighting on all fronts, including a Hizbullah attempt to join the fray. The IDF is not the only body that needs to prepare for this possibility. Rather, the home front should also prepare, particularly in southern communities, including the possibility of evacuating the women and children. We also need to engage in diplomatic activity that would lay the groundwork in the international arena and elicit understanding for Israel’s motives.
There is no point in rushing to retaliate now. The Israeli government and security establishment must carefully weigh the desirable approach at this time, prepare for it well both militarily and diplomatically, and only then act. It is possible that meanwhile Hamas too will reconsider its positions and that developments on the ground will resolve the government’s dilemma.
We are not talking about a postponement of weeks or months, but rather, several days where the defense establishment and government undertake a thorough assessment that would be the basis for the subsequent decisions and preparations. These decisions will have to be implemented resolutely and relentlessly even if they are difficult and unpopular.