Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Escalation, still not war

Yoav Limor

Israel and Hamas have entered the familiar tailspin of escalating hostilities, which on Monday evening seemed inevitable. While the Egyptians made a sizable effort to reduce tensions between the sides, actions on the ground delivered a different message: A drastic increase in the number of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, and a similar uptick in the scope of Israeli airstrikes.
The pundits and experts are divided over what led Hamas to escalate matters. There appears to be a combination of desperation, whether strategic (international isolation and the Egyptian siege), political (the unity government has struggled to function and Hamas has not paid salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants), operational (the failed abduction of the three teens and the severe damage to its West Bank infrastructure), and possibly even personal (the rifts between Hamas' political and military wings in Gaza).

Above all else, however, the deciding factor for Hamas on Monday was a separate incident: The explosion inside an underground tunnel in southern Gaza. The tunnel, which was supposed to be used in an attack, had been dug for quite some time with an opening on the Israeli side of the border, from where terrorists would abduct soldiers and use them as bargaining chips. Out of concern that Hamas, amid the current escalation, would utilize the tunnel in the immediate future, Israel attacked it from the air overnight Saturday and partially damaged it. On Sunday night, Hamas operatives entered the tunnel, possibly to gauge the extent of the damage or to booby-trap it against Israeli troops. During this activity, their explosives detonated and seven Hamas operatives perished.
This blow, compounded by its failures on other fronts, is what compelled Hamas to fire rockets at multiple regions in southern Israel. Unlike the rocket fire from the previous three weeks, this time Hamas openly led the campaign and even encouraged operatives from other terrorist groups to take similar action.
In response ,the cabinet decided on a phased operation: As long as Hamas increases its activity, the Israel Defense Forces will respond in kind -- in the scope and quality of the targets. At this stage, Israel has intentionally avoided targeting senior Palestinian leaders so as not to escalate the fighting to a greater degree, although this measure would be considered if the Palestinians were to expand their rocket offensive.
As of Monday night, a ground operation was still not on the table. The reservist call-up has been limited to reinforcing support units (primarily belonging to the Homefront Command) and the Israeli Air Force (mostly to man Iron Dome batteries). While it is reasonable to expect the IDF to present images in the coming days of tank maneuvers around the Gaza Strip -- indeed some tank and infantry units have been deployed there -- it will be done primarily as a threat and deterrent.
Indirect talks
Despite the public and political outrage and the demand for a larger response, Israel has no intention at present to embark on a comprehensive operation in Gaza. Evidence of this can be found in the continued indirect talks with Hamas, mediated by Egypt, meant to facilitate a de-escalation despite the recent hostilities. At the moment it appears hopeless, and the thrust of effort is geared toward restricting the range of the rockets to within 40 kilometers (25 miles). Thus far Hamas has been careful not to shoot at Gush Dan in central Israel, but this could change if the Palestinians suffer more casualties in Israeli airstrikes.
The casualties on the Israeli side could also substantially influence the government's decision-making process and the IDF's range of options, which is why the Homefront Command and local authorities on Monday beseeched the public to heed safety instructions (which do save lives). Meanwhile, the IDF has finished deploying its Iron Dome batteries, which are supposed to minimize the threat to the home front.

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