The government deliberated overnight Sunday over the intensity of its reaction to Hamas' escalation in the south. Unlike Saturday's discussions on the topic, by Sunday people were no longer asking "if" we would respond, but rather, "how." What would be the best way to stop the shooting and restore deterrence against Hamas in the Gaza Strip?
The change in tone was a direct result of the last day of battle on Sunday in the south. Dozens of rockets were fired into the Negev region, particularly the targeted attack on Sderot, the symbol of 11 years of Qassam rockets. Sunday's rocket barrage convinced even the last few skeptics that the situation requires immediate action. The Israel Defense Forces warned the government that its policy of stuttering responses sends a negative message to the rulers of the Gaza Strip that Israel fears a confrontation. Israel's southern residents also make justified claims that their patience is wearing thin, and that the government's consistent reassurances and recommendations to exercise patience are no longer acceptable. Citizens are merely demanding a different relationship between talk and action. The sense is that the current round of fighting has given Hamas the upper hand.
The result of all this will be an escalation of Israel's response. Messages to this effect were transferred through the diplomatic channels to Washington, European capitals and Cairo; and will today be delivered to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. At the moment, Israel is not talking about an intervention on the scale of Operation Cast Lead, but if events continue at their current rate, and judging from the mood in the IDF and among some government ministers, this option can't be ruled out altogether.
Until that happens, the Israeli government intends to "escalate its response in gradients" with each gradient raising the level of Hamas' vulnerability.
If Israeli fire encounters Palestinian self-restraint, quiet will have been achieved. The Israeli leadership on Sunday had hoped that the mere threat of a ramped up Israeli response would lead to an immediate truce, but they also know that no one believes it will bring quiet in the long term. The proof of this is that Israel's south has experienced three separate rounds of fighting recently, with increasing intensity.
Sooner or later, today or in a few weeks time, the Israeli government will have to make the decision between a quiet or full-blown operation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that quiet is not good for him because it paints Israel as defeatist, doesn't solve the problem, and encourages terror organizations to increase their activities, costing him the claim that security has been achieved.
In contrast, a broader battle could also generate criticism that the prime minister wants to shift the focus of the election agenda from the economy to security issues and, as is the nature of such large-scale operations, is likely to get more complex and end entirely differently than planned.
As such, the government hopes to threaten, using both words and deeds, with increasing levels of escalation; but also wants to hold back, at this point, from completely breaking the china.
The IDF is exercising a similar policy in the north, where Sunday marked the end of a few weeks of muted, calculated response to fire from inside Syria. Specifically, we aren't talking about a dramatic event, and I doubt if anyone in Syria meant for mortars to land in Israeli territory. Yet still, the sequence of events is worrying.
It is impossible to ignore the symbolic importance: Since the start of the Yom Kippur War, Israel has not fired from the Golan Heights into Syria.
It is doubtful whether Israel will bet money on Sunday's shooting in the Golan as the last of its kind.
It is more likely that also there, as in Sinai and the Gaza Strip, gradual escalation is taking place and Israel's dilemma is just worsening.
Currently, no one has any intention of being drawn into fighting in the north because there is no defined enemy to fight and, most of all, from the fear that it would give Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad an excuse to combine Syrian army and rebel forces against a common external enemy. But intensive work on the northern border fence and closing the gaps in land mine fields, as well as Sunday's call to Golan Heights residents to obtain the necessary equipment for personal protection, hints that the IDF expects action in the future on the northern front.
Between the northern and southern fronts, the strategic challenge in the north is much more complex, but not one that requires an immediate solution. The south, however, is burning, and Israeli leaders will need to make a decision in the very near future.