The discovery on June 20 of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers, 18 days after they were kidnapped near Hebron, sent Israel tumbling head first into its next crisis mode. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu swiftly convened an emergency meeting of his security cabinet. But as this issue went to print on July 3, the cabinet had met four times and issued no public statements.
With no strong line from the government, tensions have escalated further.
Since the June 12 abduction of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, rockets from Gaza have been slamming into Israel day by day. Their numbers have swelled exponentially, with a barrage of more than 50 rockets sailing into Israel between Wednesday July 2 and Thursday afternoon, including some guided warheads with enhanced accuracy.
Then, on July 2, the charred body of a murdered Palestinian teenager was found in the Jerusalem Forest, setting off fierce rioting in the northeastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Palestinians blamed Israeli “settlers” for the murder, saying they kidnapped 17-year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir from his home in Shuafat, Jerusalem, and killed him in revenge for the three murdered Israeli boys.
The cycle of blood and fire between Israel and the Palestinians has been sparked once again, and tensions are running high.
Egyptian, Jordanian, Qatari leaders lean hard on Netanyahu
As rocks, Molotov cocktails, firecrackers, pipe bombs and tear gas ripped through Jerusalem streets, Netanyahu remained firm in his inaction. Despite bumper stickers and signs demanding “Netanyahu, Wake Up!” and “How long?” popping up across Israel, he is standing fast thus far against the IDF opening a new military front against Hamas in its Gaza stronghold.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military and diplomatic sources, various Arab leaders have been leaning hard on Netanyahu to defer any major action until they have the chance to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani have each sent him a series of messages to this effect.
Sisi and King Abdullah upped the pressure in phone calls between Jerusalem, Cairo and Amman, advising Israel not engage directly with Gaza while the war with Al Qaeda rages in Syria and Iraq.
They were not averse to Israel’s crackdown on Hamas’s West Bank infrastructure, but pressed hard for the IDF to lay off the Gaza Strip.
But the Arab leaders and Netanyahu, who is backed solidly by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, have not taken into account key psychological and tactical aspects of the present crisis.
As Netanyahu holds back, Hamas steps up rocket fire
1. The Arab leaders were concerned solely with the issue of Hamas’s rocket fire against Israel. They failed to grasp the profound damage wrought the Israeli psyche by the nerve-wracking 18-day hunt for the three teenagers still believed alive, and the traumatic impact of the discovery of their bodies. This experience left all segments of Israeli society, especially young soldiers, in an agony of fury.
By deferring to the Arab leaders’ demand to treat the diabolical Hamas with “restraint,” Netanyahu incurred grave damage to his credibility at home, where just retribution was desperately sought. Calls for a final reckoning with Hamas were redoubled after more than a decade of rocket fire.
2. To defend his decision to the rest of the security cabinet, Netanyahu relayed the Arab leaders’ pledge of every possible effort to defuse the explosive situation in Gaza. He voiced his belief in an eventual respite from the intolerable rocket blitz.
No sooner had he spoken, than the rocket barrage redoubled, with an ever-widening range and choice of soft Israeli civilian targets. Guided missiles slammed into homes and vehicles in Sderot with shocking accuracy. Casualties were avoided only by disciplined inhabitants inured by long experience to dashing at top speed for cover.
Troop reinforcements: Window dressing or precursor of Gaza operation?
On the afternoon of July 3, senior IDF officers let it be known that troop reinforcements had been sent to the Gaza border. The Home Front Command raised the national alert level over concerns that the rockets would reach further north into central Israel.
But the same military communiqué informed Hamas that “Quiet would be greeted with quiet.” Heavily masked Hamas activists responded in a televised statement warning scornfully that Israel would be amazed by the extent of its “new bank of targets.”
Thursday evening, as tanks encircled the Gaza Strip, Israel finally issued the Palestinian extremists with a 48-hour ultimatum to desist from rocket fire or else…
Or else what?
If past experience of the Netanyahu government’s reflexes is any guide to its next actions, most of the IDF’s apparent preparations are simply window dressing or “warning signals,” rather than real action to cut Hamas down to size for egregious acts of terrorism, exceptional even in the long history of Palestinian violence.
Netanyahu’s disinclination for a wide offensive in the Gaza Strip is partly due to the deterioration of security around Israel’s borders, our military sources say. The IDF is already engaged in complex activity along its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, as well as in the war against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. IDF Special Forces are operating in Jordan to prevent Al Qaeda and its Iraqi branch from establishing pockets of influence in the kingdom, as it has done in Syria. It is also clear that a major Israeli incursion of the Gaza Strip, in order to bring security to the streets of the homeland, would be costly in casualties and last for at least a month.
This dilemma will grow more acute as time goes by.