Amid growing tensions in Gaza and the South, with Israeli leaders vowing to respond with force to the Palestinian rocket barrages this week, Israel’s options are limited.
The slow and slippery escalation began – as it often does in this region – accidentally, with no desire by any of those involved to instigate a new round of hostilities.
It started on March 5, with what seemed then as a significant, yet isolated incident 1,500 kilometers away. After months of gathering intelligence and surveillance, the Israel Navy captured a merchant ship in the Red Sea carrying Syrian-made missiles, mortar shells and bullets from Iran bound for Sudan. From there, it appears, the Iranian plan was to smuggle the weaponry to the Gaza Strip.
The shipment was most likely intended for Islamic Jihad, which is fully sponsored by Iran. Unlike the much larger Hamas movement, which broke off ties with Iran over Tehran’s support of President Bashar Assad in the bloody civil war in Syria, Islamic Jihad has remained loyal to Tehran.
Iran, which recently reached an interim agreement with world powers regarding its nuclear program, and which is trying to defuse tensions with the West, denied the Israeli allegation it was behind the shipment.
Yet the incident on the high sea could be related to what has been going on between Gaza and Israel this week. One should not rule out the possibility that Iran instructed its client, Islamic Jihad, to fire rockets at Israel. If that is the case, its aims are threefold: to retaliate for the seizure of the ship, to stir tensions, and to embarrass and punish Hamas – through retaliatory Israeli strikes on Gaza – for its independence and disobedience.
Hamas came to power in Gaza in a military coup in 2007, defeating the Palestinian Authority government. Since then, Hamas has been performing a tightrope dance to hold on to its power.
It has moved between sponsors: initially Iran and Syria, then Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled in Cairo. In the last eight months, since the military took control of Egypt, Hamas has found itself with no patron and a shortage of money.
Hamas’s delicate maneuvering has also included launching rockets and missiles against Israel, then accepting two cease-fires – in 2010 and 2012.
Moreover, it has been turning a blind eye to Islamic Jihad’s independent launching of rockets, thus violating the cease-fires with Israel, while also trying to restrain the rival group.
It seems that this time, Hamas failed to foil the Islamic Jihad-Iran plan.
The trigger that served as an excuse to embark on the current round of violence was the preparation by Islamic Jihad terrorists to launch rockets against Israel earlier this week.
Israeli forces foiled their efforts, killing the three members of the launch unit.
Islamic Jihad retaliated by firing more than 100 rockets toward Israel, starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing on Thursday. The Israel Air Force went into action, attacking 29 Islamic Jihad and Hamas targets in Gaza on Wednesday and bombing additional targets on Thursday. It was the fiercest battle between Israel and Gaza since the November 2012 Israeli military operation that ended in a cease-fire.
Now, Israeli leaders and military chiefs are debating their strategy. They want to prevent a slide into an unwanted cycle of action and reaction. They want to break this vicious circle and restore the cease-fire. But they also know that their options are limited.
Long-term calm can be achieved by one of two ways.
First, and most preferable, by signing an agreement with the PLO that US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to broker.
But such an agreement would have to be implemented not only in the PA-ruled West Bank, but also in Gaza. The chance of such a comprehensive agreement between the rival Palestinian sides, as well as Israel, is nil. Hamas will not agree to be part of any Israel-PLO deal and it certainly will not accept an Israeli demand to disarm. Even the chance of a limited Israel- PLO agreement in the West Bank is slim.
So Israel is left with the other, unwanted option: invading Gaza, toppling the Hamas government and disbanding and disarming all the terror groups operating there – Hamas, Islamic Jihad and small, renegade al-Qaida-inspired groups.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is advocating such a solution. But there is neither support nor enthusiasm for this option among most of the cabinet members. They know such a solution means all-out war, with attendant heavy casualties on both sides and condemnation by the Arab countries that are secretly supporting Israeli efforts to stop a nuclear Iran.
Thus, an Israel invasion will play into the hands of Iran.
Therefore, more realistically, we can expect more of the same. A cease-fire, its violation, rocket launches from Gaza and Israel Air Force strikes and another cease-fire.