iaf helicopter 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
It was only a matter of time. For months now, the defense establishment has been waiting for a major Kassam attack - one that would cause enough casualties and destruction - which would finally leave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with no choice but to embark on a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip.
In the IDF's Southern Command - which has been pushing for a massive operation for a year now - the understanding that only a "strategic Kassam attack" would change government policy was internalized months ago. Israel was living on luck.
Last week's Kassam barrage on Sderot as children arrived for the second day of the school year was not considered such an attack. Apparently, the rocket that hit inside the IDF's Zikim base on Tuesday morning is not one either.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the peace summit scheduled for November in Washington. If Israel launches a large operation in Gaza - it would almost certainly cause heavy causalities on both sides - Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas might be forced to cancel his participation, alongside a number of moderate Arab states. Israel's aggressive actions would be blamed.
The second reason is the tension along the northern border. While defense officials have claimed in recent days that the tension - escalated by the alleged IAF strike in Syria last week - has begun to subside, there is a fear that the deployment of large forces in Gaza would create a "window of opportunity" for Damascus.
The third consideration against a Gaza operation is that Sderot, as well as the other Gaza-belt communities, are not yet reinforced to the point that the defense establishment would like. A better level of protection is expected to be in place by the end of the year.
There is also the civilian vs soldier factor. If Israel initiates an operation following the Zikim attack, there will most likely be a public outcry against what would appear as government policy biased toward soldiers and uncaring of the daily attacks against civilians. How can the government, people will ask, launch an operation after an army base is targeted and not after a Sderot kindergarten is hit?
So what are Israel's options? In place of a large operation, the IDF could expand its limited operations already ongoing in Gaza. At the moment, the army has permission to operate two kilometers from the Gaza security fence. These operations are mostly of a defensive nature, meant to uncover terror tunnels being dug into Israel and to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad from establishing border positions, like the ones Hizbullah had until last summer's war.
These operations, a senior officer explained Tuesday, are not, however, effective in stopping the rocket attacks. The Kassam Tuesday has nearly a 15 kilometer range and operating two kilometers inside the Strip is not enough to discover the launchers or even to push the rocket squads out of range. Operations deeper inside Gaza might bear real fruit and could have a deterrent effect on terror groups.
Alternatively, Israel can implement a long list of sanctions against the Palestinian civilian population with the hope that Hamas would cave in under pressure from the people and stop its terror activity. Some cabinet ministers have suggested cutting off electricity, water and fuel supplies to Gaza. On Tuesday alone, several hundred calves were transferred into the Strip via the Sufa crossing ahead of Ramadan.
The defense establishment is split on the question of cutting off supplies. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered his office to look into the legal ramifications while Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i, along with a large number of IDF officers, believe such a move would have the opposite effect and turn Gazans toward Hamas.
The understanding in the defense establishment is that a large-scale operation is just a matter of time. But the timing is not yet right. While all this might change with just one on-target Kassam attack, what is certain is that on Wednesday evening, Israel will be starting a very tense holiday season.