Tensions in southern Israel remain high after the Air Force targeted an Islamic Jihad cell Friday as it prepared to fire a rocket into Israel, the latest incident in a string of tit-for-tat attacks in recent days.
So far, the Islamic Jihad’s response has been relatively mild. In previous instances, the group responded by firing rocket salvos deep into Israel. The meek response may be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, the group has suffered serious losses in its recent skirmishes with Israel, especially during the months of August, September and October. Second, the Islamic Jihad is being restrained by Hamas, which controls the Strip and has a low interest in escalating the situation at this point. Lastly the group is being pressured by both Fatah and Hamas to avoid escalation at a time when reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions are underway.
Since the cessation of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, both Israel and Gaza-based groups upheld an unspoken status quo. In this new reality, sporadic rocket fire into the area surrounding the Gaza Strip was largely tolerated, with each such incident met with a limited IDF response. Every violation of this status quo led to a temporary and localized escalation.
The frequency of these localized flare-ups has increased considerably since the summer of 2011, after a coordinated terror attack along Israel’s southern border claimed the lives of seven Israelis. Meanwhile, the temporary deterrence achieved by Israel in Operation Cast Lead has been exhausted to an extent, especially with regard to the Islamic Jihad and the smaller factions – as opposed to Hamas.
Under these circumstances, a second Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip is inevitable. The fact remains that the Israeli government will not tolerate the continued rocket attacks from the Strip as the new status quo. Meanwhile, current political trends and events taking place in the region and elsewhere provide Israel with a comfortable period in which to launch what would undoubtedly be a highly controversial operation.
Gaza a negligible pawn
The IDF is keeping close watch on the political situation in neighboring Egypt with the understanding that the currently cooperative military leadership may be replaced by far more hostile Islamist parties. Meanwhile, the United States is heading into an election year, which would likely reduce any pressure from the administration to condemn such offensive.
While the current conditions may favor Israel to some extent, Hamas has a low interest in another full-scale confrontation with Israel at this time. The group faces serious political and financial setbacks following the uprising in Syria, as its patrons there and in Iran have diverted their resources to stopping the rebellion. Meanwhile, Hamas is currently focusing on reconciliation talks with the Fatah and the May 2012 elections.
All these factors point to the increased possibility that the IDF will embark on a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. In the advent of such clash, the army will engage in a relatively quicker yet no less punishing campaign than Cast Lead. In order to avoid being viewed as the aggressor, Israel will likely wait for a Palestinian provocation that will justify launching a broad operation.
Given Hamas’ lack of interest to provoke such a confrontation at this time, the Islamic Jihad – directly guided by Iran – is more likely to prompt such flare-up. The Iranians are well aware that they may not be able to influence Hamas in a manner that suits their interests, but have a wide variety of alternatives with which to spark a diversionary war with Israel, should the need arise.
In order to compensate for the hesitation of Gaza groups to provoke Israel, the IDF has likely bumped up its proverbial red lines to the point where a relatively minor act would justify a major campaign. As opposed to past flare-ups, the IDF would likely respond with full force to any renewed rocket fire on major cities in Israel’s south, as well as another cross-border attack from the Sinai.
Even with full knowledge that Hamas itself would not dare launch an attack, the IDF would reiterate its policy of holding the regime fully responsible for any attack emanating from the Strip, this time with a punishing military campaign.
As such, the situation in southern Israel remains extremely tense. Hamas must now tread carefully to ensure that any one of the dozen splinter factions in the Strip do not engage in any sort of provocation that could drag its regime into a full confrontation with the IDF at such critical juncture.
Unfortunately for Hamas, as well as the citizens of Gaza and southern Israel, the Gaza Strip remains a negligible pawn on the Middle East chessboard, a playing card to be used by regional powers when it suits them most. With Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the defensive, the fate of the Gaza Strip no longer rests with Hamas.
Ron Gilran is the manager of the Intelligence department at Max Security Solutions , a risk consulting company based in the Middle East