War in Gaza: Sooner Rather Than Later?

By Ron G.

Unfortunately for Hamas, the Gaza Strip remains a negligible pawn on the Middle East chessboard, a playing card to be used by regional powers when it suits them most. 

Tension in southern Israel remains high after the Israeli Air Force targeted a smuggling tunnel and another terror-related facility in the Gaza Strip following the fire of four Kassam rockets into Southern Israel on December 28. The recent exchange of fire was triggered by the targeted killing of two militants in the Gaza Strip on December 27, who according to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were en-route to commit a terror attack along the country’s southern border with Egypt. At least one of the militants killed in the raid was reportedly an Islamic Jihad member.

Islamic Jihad militants march in Rafah.

Until now, the Islamic Jihad’s response has been  relatively mild. In previous instances, the militant group responded by firing larger salvos of rockets into Israel, and to greater distances. The mild response can be attributed to a number of factors. First and foremost, the group has suffered serious losses in its recent skirmishes with Israel, especially during the months of August, September and October. Second, the Islamic Jihad is being restrained by Hamas, who controls the Gaza Strip and has a low interest in escalating the situation at this point. Lastly the group is being pressured by both Fatah and Hamas to avoid an escalation at a time when reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions are underway.

Since  the cessation of operation Cast Lead in 2009, both Israel and Gaza-based militants have upheld an unspoken status quo. In this new reality, sporadic rocket fire into the area surrounding the Gaza Strip was largely tolerated, with each such incident met with a limited IDF response. Every violation of this status quo has led to a temporary and localized escalation. These exchanges usually included bouts of more intensive rocket fire into Israel’s southern cities, answered with more costly targeted attacks by the Israeli Air Force against more sensitive targets in the Gaza strip. 

The frequency of these localized flare-ups has increased considerably since the summer of 2011, after a coordinated terror attack along Israel’s southern border claimed the lives of seven Israelis. The heightened tensions in the Strip should thus be attributed, among other reasons, to the sprouting of terror-groups inside Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. During the past year, the region has become a safehaven for such factions, many of whom are linked to global jihad and local Bedouin, while cooperating with Gaza-based militias. In addition, the temporary deterrence achieved by Israel in ‘Cast Lead’ has been  exhausted to an extent, especially with regard to the Islamic Jihad and the smaller factions – as opposed to Hamas.

Under these circumstances, a second Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip is inevitable. The fact remains that the Israeli government will not tolerate the continued rocket attacks from the Strip as the new status quo. Meanwhile, current political trends and events taking place in the region and elsewhere provide the Israelis with a comfortable period in which to launch what you undoubtedly be a high controversial operation. The Israeli military is keeping close watch on the political situation in neighboring Egypt with the understanding that the currently cooperative military leadership may be replaced by far more hostile Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the United States is heading into an election year which could arguably reduce any pressure pressure from the administration to condemn such an attack.

While the current conditions may favor the Israeli government to an extent, Hamas has a low interest to engage in another full scale confrontation with Israel at this time. The group faces serious political and financial setbacks following the uprising in Syria, as it patrons there and in Iran have diverted their resources to stopping the rebellion. Meanwhile, Hamas is currently focusing on reconciliation talks with the Fatah and the subsequent May 2012 elections.

A culmination of these factors points to the increased possibility that the Israeli military will embark on a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip. In the advent of such a conflict, the Israeli military will engage in a relatively quicker, yet no less punishing campaign than that which was conducted in 2008.  In order to stave off being viewed as the aggressor, Israel will likely wait for a Palestinian provocation which will justify launching a broad operation. Given Hamas’s lack of interest to provoke such a confrontation at this time, the Islamic – directly guided by Iran – is more likely to cause such a flare up. The Iranians are well aware that they may not be able to influence Hamas in a manner which suits their interests, but luckily have a wide variety of alternatives with which to spark a diversionary war with Israel, should the need arise.

In order to compensate for the hesitation of Gaza militants to provoke Israel, the IDF has likely bumped up its preverbal red lines to the point where a far more minor act would justify a major campaign. As opposed to past flare-ups, the IDF would likely respond with full force to any renewed rocket fire on major cities in Israel’s south, as well as another cross-border attack from the Sinai. Even with full knowledge that Hamas itself would not dare launch an attack, the IDF would reiterate its policy of holding the regime fully responsible for any attack emanating from the strip- this time with a punishing military campaign.

As such, the situation in southern Israel remains extremely tense. Hamas must now tread carefully to ensure that any one of the dozen splinter factions in the Strip do not engage in any sort of provocation which could drag its regime into a full confrontation with the Israeli military as such a critical juncture. Unfortunately for Hamas, as well as the citizens of Gaza and southern Israel, the Gaza Strip remains a negligible pawn on the Middle East chessboard, a playing card to be used by regional powers when it suits them most. With Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on the defensive, the fate of the Gaza Strip no longer rests with Hamas.

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