The green light to assassinate the Secretary-General of the Popular Resistance Committees [PRC] Zuhair al-Kaisi in Gaza was given with the full knowledge that the operation would spark an escalation in violence. In fact, Kaisi was a dead man walking for over a week - the assassination was put off because the prime minister had not yet returned from Washington, Israel was celebrating Purim, and the weather was inclement.
The aim of the assassination was to foil a terror attack that al-Kaisi had set into motion, which was to have come out of Gaza, through Sinai, into Israel, much like the attack that took the lives of eight Israelis last August 18. Back then, the government did not grant the IDF the green light to preemptively target the PRC leadership, which was wiped out only after the terror attack. But the decision to keep route 12 (where the attack was carried out) closed for months following the attack, as well as after this weekend's spike, indicates that the threat has not yet been eliminated.
Gaza terrorists responded to Kaisi's assassination with a knee-jerk firing of rockets and mortar shells. The PRC normally fire short-range rockets into Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip, while the Islamic Jihad fires rockets with a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles). (The newest double-barreled launcher the Islamic Jihad proudly presented by video on Saturday was apparently filmed in Libya, not Gaza, as Islamic Jihad claims. Israeli experts believe that the launcher never made it to Gaza.) Hamas doesn’t fire rockets now, but instead encourages other organizations to do so, and permits some of its loyalists to operate under the auspices of other organizations.
As of Saturday, Israel was clearly winning this latest round. Alongside the targeted assassination, at least ten rocket-launching cells were also eliminated. But Israel’s main achievement was defensive, not offensive: three Iron Dome batteries achieved impressive success, shooting down nearly 90 percent of the rockets fired at Israel’s southern cities. These batteries were scheduled to be tested in the central Gush Dan area but the drill was postponed due to expectations, which turned out to be accurate, of escalation in the south.
Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who pushed for the development of the Iron Dome missile defense system during his term in the Defense Ministry, can definitely smile with satisfaction. The defense system not only proved, once again, its efficacy in saving human lives, but also in giving the IDF the freedom to take action without fear of retaliation and in giving the government room to maneuver diplomatically.
Officials in Jerusalem and defense officials in the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv deliberated on Saturday on how far to take this freedom. On the one hand, as Homefront Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said, Israel has no intention of launching a ground offensive in Gaza. On the other hand, Israel’s power of deterrence in Gaza has gradually eroded to dangerous levels in recent weeks.
Qassam rockets and mortar shells have been fired daily into Israel, but in the absence of Israeli casualties (a matter of luck) the events did not make headlines. The IDF has warned that terror organizations in Gaza were trying to make Israelis grow accustomed to a routine that includes rocket fire, much like they did before Operation Cast Lead (Israel’s Gaza offensive in Dec. 2008). The IDF warned further that avoiding a limited offensive in Gaza now could necessitate a larger scale offensive in the future.
Therefore, the obvious goal for the current round of fighting is to restore calm to Israel’s south. When cease-fire understandings are being formulated in the coming days, Israel will demand that Hamas recommit to preventing rocket fire from Gaza into the Negev. Not that anyone has any delusions: over the last three years there has been a disturbing trend of shorter and shorter intervals between clashes, as each round becomes more and more violent. Both sides try to pack in as many victories as possible into the shortest number of fighting days: the terror organizations try to fire a maximum number of rockets, hoping to shed blood on the eastern side of the Gaza border fence, while the IDF hopes to hit as many targets as it can on the western side of the same fence.
A part of this recurring scenario is Israel’s need to decide whether or not to take advantage of the escalation, but there is a heavy cost: the fire targeting Israel will also increase and could, for the first time, include strikes beyond the Beersheba-Ashdod line further toward central Israel. Such an eventuality, putting millions of Israelis directly in the line of fire, would require an escalation on Israel’s part, despite its desire to refrain from a large-scale offensive.
Global efforts to broker a cease-fire will also soon be poured into this mix of deliberation and constraints. The first buds of these efforts came on Saturday from Egypt, which enjoys a good relationship with both sides. The weakness of the Egyptian leadership and army at this time, however, prevents Cairo from taking any kind of effective action against the onslaught of terror coming out of Sinai (some terror groups are being so bold as to carry out weapons experiments within Egyptian territory). But in previous rounds, Egypt has proven effective in calming both sides.
Several more days of fighting will precede the eventual cease-fire. Therefore, it was decided to shut down schools in the line of fire for the next few days. Now, all that is left to hope for is that the term “Red South” will refer only to the beautiful anemone blossoms in the Negev each spring. Civilians' discipline (especially when it comes to remaining in secure structures), and continued operational efficiency (including that of our defense systems) will determined the success of the current round of fighting.