JNS.org — This week’s mortar fire on southern Israel is the gravest security escalation on the Israel-Gaza border since “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014, though Israeli defense officials believe that Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, can still avoid a full-fledged military conflict. They say that the choice of what happens next is in the hands of Hamas.
This escalation did not happen overnight. It began with the failure of the so-called “March of Return” that Hamas unleashed on the border two weeks ago to mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the “catastrophe” of the Arabs’ defeat in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Only several thousand marchers took part, with around 60 Palestinians — most of them terrorists — killed. Since then, Hamas’ border-riot campaign has been dwindling.
To try to maintain friction with Israeli security forces, Hamas has spared no effort to turn the border area into a terrorist zone, and has given its operatives –and Palestinian protesters — a free hand to carry out attacks, including hurling firebombs, sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, and placing explosives on the security fence.
Israeli shelling in response to one of these attacks killed three Islamic Jihad operatives. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for Tuesday morning’s rocket salvo, but there is no doubt that Hamas gave it the green light.
Hamas gambled that Israel would mount the obligatory measured response, and this would end the current round. But Israel mounted a large response instead, striking dozens of terror hubs and destroying a Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza. Hamas was pressured to respond, both by its own members and the other terrorist groups in Gaza. In a bid to maintain control, Hamas decided to join the fray.
One defense official called it the “Fatah syndrome,” saying that Hamas’ biggest fear is being perceived, like its rival faction Fatah, as doing nothing to take part in the Palestinian struggle.
Still, Hamas made it clear to its operatives that their fire must be limited to the Israeli communities near the border and avoid long-range attacks on larger cities like Ashdod, Beersheva, and even Tel Aviv.
Israeli defense officials debated the intensity of Israel’s response, but it was widely believed that decisive action was needed to make it clear to Hamas that a red line had been crossed.
From a public diplomacy standpoint, Israel placed responsibility for the escalation in the south on Hamas and Iran, which sponsors the terror organization and spurs it to action. Islamic Jihad was also condemned to a lesser degree, despite its direct involvement. Israel was careful and sought to avoid Palestinian casualties as much as possible.
The Israeli response was meant mostly to give Hamas the necessary leeway to contain the situation before it spirals out of control. Naturally, the Israeli military is ready for that to happen, but it still prefers to avoid a war if possible.
Egypt and Qatar played roles as brokers on Tuesday to little effect. The decision of where to go from here remains with Hamas. If it mounts a minor response to the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, Israel will be able to pull back. But if the mortar and rocket salvos continue, the IDF will retaliate forcibly and the situation could easily deteriorate from there.
The prevailing view in Israel is that Hamas has no interest in such escalation, but its conduct is confused and erratic, which is a recipe for mistakes.
Even if an escalation is avoided, this is hardly the end of the story. Gaza is on the brink of eruption for a variety of reasons, most notably the dire economic and humanitarian situation coupled with growing political frustration. Given Hamas’ failure to provide Gazans with any solutions, it can go on one of two paths: a ceasefire or war. Both options are still on the table.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.