Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a difficult yet familiar position.
Israel is facing a bombardment of rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza. On Monday, between 40 and 70 rockets were fired on Israel from the coastal strip, a number edging towards the 120 daily attacks during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist group Hamas, officially claimed responsibility for the attacks, although Netanyahu is hardly itching for a fight.
Israel called up 1,500 reservists on Monday, a fraction of the 8,000 called up during Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, or the 30,000 mobilized during the last Gaza flare-up in 2012. Oren Kessler, a Henry Jackson Society research fellow specializing in the Middle East, says that the call-up alone is significant but adds that most Israeli operations inside the Strip will likely involve aerial or artillery bombardments. “The days of ground invasions of Gaza — requiring large troop call-ups — are largely behind us,” he told Business Insider by email.
So far, strikes on Gaza have been somewhat limited, although Hamas announced that six of its militants were killed in an airstrike over the weekend.
There is an apparent split between Netanyahu and his allies in the security cabinet, and right-wing coalition partners who want a more robust counter to the Gaza attacks. Earlier today, right wing politician and Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman pulled his Yisrael Beitanu faction out of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, supposedly over Netanyahu’s insufficient response to the rocket barrage. Others on the right worry that Netanyahu’s limited response is jeopardizing Israel’s deterrence.
Netanyahu’s restraint makes a certain intuitive sense. Hamas is a signatory to and indirect participant in a U.S.-funded Palestinian unity government. Iran and the western security alliance have resumed their negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, and a potential Iranian bomb is an issue of far greater importance to Netanyahu than Hamas’s rocket fire. Hamas operates in plainclothes and launches rockets from civilian areas, all but ensuring that any major operation in Gaza will have civilian causalities — as well as accompanying political costs that Netanyahu doesn’t think Israel can afford at the moment.
Even with scores of rockets fired at Israel each day, the risks of escalation are just too great for the Israelis, at least when weighed against other Israeli strategic concerns and options. As Kessler notes, former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter has been publicly talking about a Gaza operation that could last “over a year,” implying a protracted, low-density campaign that would eliminate terror targets without drawing international condemnation, provoking additional attacks, or distracting from other Israeli objectives.
So there’s a level of rocket fire that Netanyahu can tolerate, at least short of a major escalation. The crucial question now facing the region is whether there’s anything in the offing that could change his mind.
The 2012 Israeli campaign against Gaza was mostly aimed at destroying a stockpile of Iranian-made Fajr 5 long-range missiles that arrived in the Gaza Strip through Egypt and Sudan. These rockets were capable of hitting both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Israeli policymakers considered them to be a potential game-changer.
Operation Pillar of Defence was relatively contained: it lasted for only eight days, and there was no accompanying ground operation. Even so, the possession of a new weapons capability has been enough to force the government’s hand — as was apparently the case during several alleged Israeli strikes on Hezbollah weapons convoys inside of Syria since the start of that country’s ongoing civil war.
A direct hit on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem might also leave Netanyahu with little choice but to launch a large-scale operation. So might another week with scores of rockets launched at Israel per day. This map tweeted by a pro-Palestinian twitter activists suggests that the rockets have already hit most of the populated areas around Gaza:
But so far, damage from the rocket attacks has been minimal. There’s a chance that Hamas or some faction within the organisation is attempting to bait Israel into a conflict for its own internal or strategic reasons, or that the Qassam Brigades are acting independently of the rest of Hamas’s highly fractured leadership structure. There’s simply too much uncertainty for Netanyahu to want to act, along with too great of a potential downside.
But this calculus could be a few hundred rockets — or even just a couple of direct hits — away from shattering.
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