Events over the past two weeks, particularly on Saturday, have led Israel to a crossroads. Should Israel accept the dangerous deterioration of the security situation around the Gaza Strip or should it risk an escalation of violence by attempting to change the rules of the game?
The security situation in southern Israel has been slowly deteriorating over the past four years, since Operation Cast Lead, but it has taken a sharp turn for the worse recently. The pauses between rounds of violence have shortened and the violence itself has become more intense. Worst of all, Hamas has resumed taking an active role in military operations against Israel, after a long period of sitting out of direct action.
The reasons for this are mainly internal. Hamas members felt that the organization had become too political and sterile and had abandoned the path of "resistance." Hamas has also been facing a growing challenge from other terrorist groups in Gaza, particularly Islamic Jihad. In addition, Hamas has sensed that the Israel's international political capital, and especially in the U.S., has decreased, limiting Israel's freedom to act in Gaza. Moreover, the latest talk of peace by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes Hamas feel the need to signal that it too is an indispensable part of the political-diplomatic game.
Fear of a harsh Israeli response has led Hamas to refrain from launching rockets into Israel (although Hamas does not prevent other Gaza terror groups from doing so). But Hamas has greatly intensified its military operations along the border fence. On orders from the top, Hamas operatives have resumed activities along the 300-meter security perimeter west of the border fence, a zone in which the Israel Defense Forces has reserved the right to operate and to strike terrorists. Israeli troops operating along the border have encountered explosive devices, as well as mortar and sniper fire. In recent days, Hamas has struck inside Israel twice, once with a large explosives-rigged tunnel and with an anti-tank missile that wounded four IDF soldiers.
For the IDF, this marked the violation of a red line that requires an immediate policy change. The constant friction with Hamas and the movement of events east into Israel have significantly increased the risk to Israeli soldiers and civilians and have also reduced the IDF's freedom of operation. Accepting this situation could lead to an escalation of terrorist activities that would drag Israel into a large and messy operation in Gaza.
The IDF went with a disproportionate response on Saturday night, at the risk of causing another round of violence in the south and the consequent disruption of daily life there. Will such a round of violent escalation indeed occur? The answer depends on several key factors — the decision of Israel's political leadership, which is influenced by the upcoming election; the international reaction, which has not yet arrived; and cease-fire efforts, which have not yet started but could gain momentum, particularly through Egypt.
The next day will be critical in determining whether we are facing an escalation of violence or a cease-fire, which would be very temporary and fragile. The skies above Gaza are darkening and while a major conflict may not be imminent, it appears to be unavoidable.