Just one rocket was fired from Gaza at Israel on Tuesday—a remarkably quiet day. Again the words ceasefire and truce were in the air. Israel’s citizens and leaders know that when it comes to Hamas and the other terror groups in Gaza, those words are as meaningful as they are regarding a hurricane or a wolf pack. But, again, the Israeli government settled for a ceasefire.
That was after 150 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Saturday to Monday, wounding at least 8 people, putting 25 in shock, disrupting life for a million residents of southern Israel. It started on Saturday when an army jeep on a routine patrol 200 meters west of the Gaza border was hit by an antitank missile, wounding four soldiers.
The Israeli leadership chose not to respond to this as an act of war. Over the three days Israeli planes hit some arms depots, rocket-launching crews, and other targets in Gaza, killing a handful of terrorists and possibly some civilians. It was by any standard a measured, restrained response, fearful of escalation. By Tuesday it was reported that Egypt had told Hamas it would not intervene on its side if the fighting continued, and Hamas had apparently decided to stand down—for the moment.
The total of rockets fired from Gaza in 2012 is now about a thousand. For a while the flare-ups were occurring about once every two months; but lately it’s been once every couple of weeks, with Hamas itself—as opposed to the smaller groups—much more openly participating. Reasons for this greater boldness could include an improving geopolitical climate for Hamas and radical Islam generally; a steady erosion of Israeli deterrence since the 2008-09 Gaza War; and the ever-expanding influx of weapons into Gaza from Iran and Libya.
But the reasons don’t matter much. Hamas is not in Gaza to build parks, improve rail service, or attract tourists. It is there to impose sharia law on the population and to attack and help destroy Israel. As long as Hamas exists at any substantial level of political and military power, nothing will deflect it from those goals.
As for the ongoing reticence of the Netanyahu government—becoming more and more reminiscent of the previous Olmert government, even though Netanyahu’s is nominally considered more “right-wing” or “hawkish”—again multiple reasons are adduced. They include a reluctance to take chances with Israeli elections coming up in two months; fears that a Gaza operation could spark a wider conflict that Egypt, Hizballah, possibly Syria, or some combination of those would join; and a lack of “legitimacy” for Israeli military operations on the world stage.
Indeed, news reports suggest that the third of those issues is what most perturbs Jerusalem. At least it was what led Netanyahu on Monday to summon 70 foreign ambassadors to Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal city just north of Gaza that has been pummeled by rockets, and tell them:
I don’t know of any of your governments who could accept such a thing. I don’t know of any of the citizens of your cities, who could find that acceptable and something that could proceed on a normal basis. I think the whole world understands that this is not acceptable. We’ll take whatever action is necessary to put a stop to this. This is not merely our right, it’s also our duty.
On Tuesday night it was reported that Israel’s forum of nine top ministers had convened and “agreed…not to fire on…Gaza…as long as the rocket fire stops…. However, should the rocket fire be renewed over the next few weeks, then Israel will increase the severity of its response….”
It won’t take long to know whether these are more empty words or signal a strengthening resolve.
The last few days have also seen incidents at the Syrian border, where Syrian government forces are in deadly combat with rebels. On Monday, when Israeli positions on the Golan Heights were hit again, Israel fired back at a Syrian artillery launcher and apparently wounded two soldiers.
Although it is tempting to see the Gazan and Syrian fire as related prongs of a larger assault, the lack of any further Syrian response suggests the shells that hit Israel were fired randomly. Jerusalem’s assessment is that Bashar Assad has enough trouble on his hands without getting Israel involved as well—though that could change if he gets desperate enough.
In any case, things are heating up. No doubt, it would be better for Israel if the White House had a more sympathetic occupant, and if European capitals could not be counted on to put oil prices over Israeli lives.
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