In the three-week aftermath of the Hamas kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stood firm against the popular outcry for a full reckoning with the perpetrators and harsh military punishment to reach them in their Gaza lairs.
This week the two Israeli leaders relented, but never entirely reversed course when, on July 8, they ordered the Israel Defense Forces to attack Hamas strongholds from the skies, but not to touch ground.
(See DEBKA Weekly 641 of July 4: “Netanyahu Maneuvers to Stay out of Gaza, Pays for Restraint with Credibility at Home.”)
Thursday night, after a hectic cabinet session – and a record 170 Hamas rockets in a single day – there were signs Netanyahu may give way on a ground operation. As we wrote this, it was still touch and go.
Netanyahu has admitted that Operation Protective Edge, which relies on Israel’s air power to knock out Hamas’ military and logistical infrastructure – with the focus on missiles — will not be quick. Israeli jets began striking Hamas targets in Gaza Tuesday, July 8, in earnest. That evening, the prime minister again urged the Israeli public to have patience because the operation “may take time.”
The following day, after Hamas had sent more than 130 rockets hurtling as far north as Hadera, a distance of 110 km that was covered by its Syrian-made M-302 Khaibar missiles, as well as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. By the end of the day, half of Israel was under potential attack and 5 million Israelis ordered to stay close to bomb shelters.
Sharp escalation on both sides
Netanyahu thereupon ordered the IDF to accelerate air strikes against Palestinian military and logistic infrastructure, tunnels, buried missiles, command and control and other facilities, as well as launching targeted assassinations of senior Hamas and Jihad Islami figures, including politicians.
(See a separate article covering the military aspects of the operation.)
The next day, Wednesday, the M-302s flew north up the Mt. Carmel town of Zichron Yaakov, 141 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, and the high-end town of Caesarea. Iron Dome blew them up before they landed. The next seven rockets missed the Dimona Nuclear Center thanks to Iron Dome.
But although the hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas day after day have caused no Israeli fatalities – largely due to Iron Dome, normal life is disrupted in many parts of the country and the economy is suffering.
Although the prime minister twice this week ordered the army to put extra punch into the operation and exact “a heavy price” from Hamas, his flip-flopping in the last few weeks leaves room for doubt that he has said his last word about where he wants the military operation to go.
Breaking the pattern of condemnation-cum-mediation
His spokesman Mark Regev told foreign correspondents Wednesday:
“What we see is that over the last few years, Hamas has built up in Gaza a very formidable terrorist military machine and we are now acting to dismantle that machine.”
Asked about an IDF ground operation, he said: "It’s possible, we are ready for every contingency, the army has been instructed to prepare for that – if that is what politicians decide. Our strategic goal is ultimately defensive, to end the rocket fire on our cities.”
So the next stage of Operation Protective Edge is still up in the air.
For the first time in many years, Israel has essentially won a free rein to deal with Hamas from friends and foes alike. But this period won’t last much longer as Palestinian casualties begin to mount.
In previous skirmishes with terrorist and other enemies, including Hamas, a rough pattern was established: Like clockwork, Arab and other unfriendly governments would rush in to condemn Israel – often filing complaints with the UN Security Council; friends urged restraint “on both sides” and the US administration of whatever stripe moved in as the adult to set in motion a mediation process for calming the adversaries – either directly or through Egypt or a Persian Gulf state.
Israel is not seizing on the lull in international bashing
But this time, US President Barack Obama is keeping his distance, showing no interest in intervening in the conflict – certainly not to rescue Hamas, which recently patched up its rift with Tehran and Hizballah.
The Europeans governments, which stuck a toe in the murky waters of mediation, quickly jerked it out again in the face of the hostile reaction. Even Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who normally counts on the Europeans taking his part, preferred them to stay out of it.
This should not have been a surprise to seasoned regional observers. Weeks after forging a peace pact with his Hamas rivals, he is eager to seen his partner weakened, especially if the job can be performed by Israel without him lifting a finger. Egyptian President Fattah El Sisi signaled Jerusalem that for him, Israel is an ally combating a common enemy, the Gaza Islamists who also plague Sinai. He will therefore not interfere beyond the ritual call on both sides to exercise restraint.
But Netanyahu is not seizing Israel’s rare moment of relief from international opprobrium. Knocking out Hamas’ military infrastructure and buying Israel peace from rockets would necessitate inserting armored troops and infantry into Gaza on a scale of which the prime minister has been gun-shy about in the past.
Netanyahu’s abstention from ground action gives Hamas the military edge
In November 2012, he ordered the IDF to mass 70,000 armored corps and infantry troops at the Gaza border, but escaped authorizing an invasion by accepting a truce accord brokered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Muslim Brotherhood, then in power in Cairo.
This truce mostly held water for only eighteen months. This time, he is being urged to make it final.
But the call-up he approved of just 40,000 reserve troops doesn’t answer the case.
By every military standard, Hamas is Israel’s inferior in strength. Yet it has gained the upper hand from Netanyahu’s refusal to respond directly, beyond air strikes, to the ever-expanding Hamas blitz of up to 200-250 surface-to-surface missiles per day. The Iron Dome missile defense system, a disciplined public and the Hamas rockets’ lack of guidance systems – and therefore easily intercepted before landing in unpopulated areas – have saved Israel from fatalities.
But the average Israeli is taking an emotional psychological battering from the endless round of sirens before the tense wait for a rocket to fall somewhere, the dash to shelters, transport chaos, traumatized children, missed schooling and problems with places of work.
Further unease was caused Tuesday when a Hamas commando unit landed on the beach of the southern town of Ashkelon bent on attacking the large Israeli naval base in the vicinity. Israeli forces discovered and shot them dead as they came into land.
Hamas waits for a game-changer, Israel for Hamas to crack
But Hamas may have more tricks up its sleeve. A web of tunnels from Gaza is known to have been secretly burrowed under the electronic border fence up to Israeli army bases and communities. They have not all been unearthed. Hamas is also believed to have acquired small drones to be packed with explosives and used as a weapon.
The Palestinian extremists appear to be hoping for a game changer that by causing a large number of casualties would permit them to claim victory – such as a direct rocket hit, or a large-scale terrorist attack in an Israeli city; the first rockets launched by Hamas from the West Bank; or even a new front opened on Israel’s northern borders by Syria or Hizballah.
But none of these options appear to be in sight at the moment for Hamas. Israel too is waiting for Hamas to crack under the pressure of air strikes and troops massed on the border. But the Palestinian jihadis are also hoping that Israel blinks first.