As rockets and threats fly fast and furious, a familiar tension builds in the Middle East.
- By Amos Harel<p> Amos Harel is the senior military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. </p>
TEL AVIV, Israel — It happens, on average, every three months or so. Dozens of Palestinian rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip at southern Israeli towns and villages, while the Israeli air force pounds Palestinian military camps and positions spread across Gaza’s densely populated urban areas. The two sides exchange threats: One says it will bomb the opponent back to the Stone Age, while the other promises that the gates of hell will open on the enemy.
In most cases, things get pretty much back to normal within a few days. Normalcy is a relative concept, of course — the most one can hope for is a very tense calm along this hostile border. That is, until the cycle repeats itself.
In the latest exchange of fire, which began on March 11, Palestinian militants have launched roughly 70 rockets into southern Israel and the Israeli air force has responded by striking dozens of sites within Gaza. The violence was sparked by a controversy over “the perimeter” — a narrow strip of land to the west of the fence that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that it is on the Palestinian side, Israel insists that it needs to occasionally send patrols there, to search for explosives that might threaten the lives of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. Hamas, which controls Gaza, accepts this — it is part of the “understandings” that were reached with Israel, through Egyptian mediation, after Israel’s last major military operation in Gaza in November 2012.
But Hamas isn’t the only group with rockets in Gaza. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second largest organization, never signed on to this particular understanding — and sporadically chooses to challenge it with force. This is what happened on March 11: An Israeli force crossed the southernmost part of the fence, whereupon it was bombarded with mortar fire. The soldiers were not hurt, but the Israeli air force promptly spotted the mortar team and struck back, killing three Palestinian militants.
Islamic Jihad upped the ante 24 hours later, launching a barrage of rockets at many Israeli towns. The attack did not succeed in hurting a single Israeli — in part thanks to the Iron Dome air defense system, which managed to intercept three rockets aimed at the town of Sderot.
An Islamic Jihad spokesperson dubbed the attack "Operation Breaking the Silence" — by now, both sides are fond of dramatic names — and said that it was time for Israel to pay for its crimes. The Israelis’ rhetoric was also tough: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to respond with “massive force,” while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that the IDF should reoccupy the Gaza Strip.
Is Israel really contemplating an invasion of Gaza? The answer, unequivocally, is no. The last thing Netanyahu wants to do is take responsibility for the region’s more than 1.5 million residents. Netanyahu even avoided sending ground forces into Gaza during the November 2012 operation, believing — correctly — that it could lead to a dangerous quagmire.
Netanyahu, in fact, is likely happy to maintain the status quo in Gaza. For this Israeli prime minister, Hamas is an almost perfect partner: True, its leaders detest Israel — but this only serves to prevent any form of direct negotiations between the two sides, which could lead to more international demands for Israeli concessions. Since Hamas will not sit at the same negotiating table with the Jewish state, it also cannot enlist international support for pressure against Israel like its major political opponent, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
While the Islamist regime in Gaza continues to pay lip service to the military struggle against Israel, it seems that Hamas is currently more focused on its political survival. A direct clash with the IDF, a much stronger force, will not serve Hamas’s purposes.
Moreover, the regional balance of power appears to be turning against Hamas. Since the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was toppled by a military coup last summer, Cairo and Jerusalem have significantly improved their relationship. While Cairo’s strongman, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, carefully avoids any direct, high-profile contacts with the Israelis, co-operation between both sides’ militaries has hardly ever been better. Not only did Egypt almost completely halt the smuggling of weapons through the underground tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, it also constantly warns Hamas not to provoke Israel. Earlier this month, an Egyptian court even outlawed Hamas entirely, in another sign of the Palestinian Islamist group’s growing isolation.
Sure, Hamas would like to draw Israeli blood every now and then — but it currently can’t risk the possibility of provoking retaliation. Its problems are not only with Egypt; the movement has also recently distanced itself from two of its major backers, Iran and the Syrian regime. The Syrian army’s slaughter of the Sunni opposition led to Hamas’s public disavowal of the regime in Damascus, which in turn created tensions with Tehran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest supporter. As a result, Iran’s supply of money and weapons to Hamas is believed to have been curtailed substantially.
As the recent altercation has shown, however, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has emerged as the greatest unknown in the Gaza equation. The group doesn’t necessarily adhere to orders from Hamas: Just last week, Israeli commandos boarded a ship off the coast of Sudan, which apparently was full of Iran-made rockets destined for Gaza. The rockets — some of them with a 100-mile range, which could cover most of Israel’s population centers, if launched from Gaza — were most likely meant to reach Islamic Jihad militants.
There are signs that this round of what seems to be an endless cycle of violence may already be winding down. On Thursday afternoon, Islamic Jihad announced that it would accept the renewal of the ceasefire. It remains to be seen whether all the organization’s field operatives will obey instructions — several rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel as night fell on Thursday. But since all the other three major actors — Israel, Hamas, and Egypt — are evidently interested in restoring calm, the odds of preventing a more serious military conflict seem good.
At some point, however, the calm will once again be broken. This is a fragile truce, achieved only through regular threats of massive bloodshed — not an actual peace, cemented in a comprehensive agreement. Don’t expect an Israeli invasion, but don’t expect the rockets from Gaza to stop, either. That status quo is too convenient for both sides.