Israel and Hamas on the brink of something much worse

Michael Petrou explains the stakes

Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza City, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (Bernat Armangue)

Here is what’s making news on Sunday morning:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from a cabinet meeting to say that Israel is prepared to expand its operation.
  • Reuters is reporting that Israel fired artillery into Syria on Saturday in response to gunfire aimed at its troops.
  • The Washington Post reports that Israeli military hit two buildings used by journalists in Gaza. The paper also reports that the country’s missile defence system stopped a long-range rocket over Tel Aviv.

And here is Michael Petrou on what is at stake:

The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is on the brink of escalation into a much wider war and a possible Israeli ground invasion of the Palestinian territory.

Following months of Palestinian rocket attacks against civilian targets in southern Israel — as well as an anti-tank missile attack against a military jeep — on Wednesday Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari in a precise airstrike as he traveled in his car.

Israel also targeted a number of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad weapons depots and rocket launching sites. The Palestinian militant groups responded with a flurry of rocket attacks, including several using what appear to be Iranian Fajr-5 missiles that were launched at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — the first time Israel’s two largest cities have been attacked from Gaza.

By Sunday afternoon, at least 52 Palestinians had died, including 11 children, according to Palestinian health officials. Three Israelis died Thursday. The Israeli government has  confirmed “in principle” the call up of 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion of Gaza.

Still, such an invasion is not inevitable, according to Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

“In the next day or two it’s going to go in one of two directions. It’s going to peter out pretty quick, or it’s going to escalate just as quick,” says Levitt. “It is possible for both sides at this point to back down in a face saving manner, claiming to accomplish their respective goals.”

Levitt says Israeli goals in its current campaign include re-establishing the principle of deterrence — in other words, making it clear to Hamas that rocket attacks against Israel will trigger a punishing response. A war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza four years ago killed well over 1,000 Palestinians, and led to a sharp reduction in rocket attacks until this year.

Israeli ambassador Miriam Ziv, in an interview with Maclean’s, also underlined the importance of deterrence as tactic in Israel’s campaign.

Israel’s second major goal is to destroy, or at least seriously deplete, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s arsenals of rockets. Here, too, Israel can argue it has had some success, and has been quick to do so on Twitter and other social media.

On the other, Hamas can also claim a sort of victory. It’s demonstrated its ability to strike far beyond the southern Israeli towns that have thus far borne the brunt of its attacks, right into the Israeli capital. And, with the visit of Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil to Gaza today, it can make the case that its diplomatic isolation is ending and it is once again an influential player in the Arab world.

Such boasts wouldn’t sit well with Israelis — and yet the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah also claimed victory after its 2006 war with Israel, but has kept its border quiet since. Israelis could probably put up with Hamas chest-thumping were a ceasefire to take hold over the next couple of days, as long as the rocket attacks stopped. While a ground invasion would allow Israel to more thoroughly root out targets in Gaza, it also makes Israeli military casualties more likely.

There are signs, though, that escalation, rather than a ceasefire, is imminent. On Friday evening, Israel reportedly assassinated a second senior Hamas figure: Ahmed Abu Jalal, along with three of his brothers. Hamas will feel obligated to respond to such a high-profile strike.

And according to Jonathan Fine, a research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, Israel’s goals of punishing Hamas and destroying its heavy weapons requires a ground invasion. Mobilizing the reserves is not a bluff.

“What you’ve seen up to now is the first stage in a massive operation. [Hamas] is gong to get the shit beaten out of them. There’s no way back to what was up till now.”

Israel is also likely to see continuing rocket attacks against Tel Aviv as a sort of red line that demands a more severe response — even than the sea and air bombardment it has so far unleashed.

Israel has so far enjoyed the firm backing of most of its Western allies, including Canada. Britain and Germany have also emphasized Israel’s right to self defence. A ground invasion may erode that — though unlikely from Canada.

“The Prime Minister and I have both stressed to our Israeli counterparts that a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation,” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News, whose journalists used a media building hit by an Israeli air strike Sunday.

Israel, however, appears determined to decisively deal with Hamas. International objections — unless they come from Washington — are unlikely to matter much.


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