The last serious round of fighting between Israel and Gaza – the fourth since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – took place just over a year ago, in May 2021. Israel called that 12-day operation Guardian of the Walls. Hamas gave it another name: Sword of Jerusalem.
Why Sword of Jerusalem? Because the rockets Hamas fired on Jerusalem that precipitated Israel’s strong response came, in Hamas’s telling, in response to Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount and in Sheikh Jarrah.
Hamas, in competition with the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, was trying to set new rules of the game: Israeli actions in Jerusalem that they were unhappy with would be met with rockets over the country. Hamas, not the PA, would be the defender of Jerusalem; Hamas, not the PA, would unsheathe the Sword of Jerusalem.
Israel was determined not to allow these new “rules” to gain traction, and took swift and forceful action against Hamas in Gaza. One point worth noting: the operation took place after the country’s fourth election, but before a new government was set up. It was a transitional government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was in charge at the time.
While Israel took another reputational beating in world public opinion as a result of that operation, it did hit Hamas hard during the campaign, and the message it intended to send to the terrorist organization that Jerusalem would not play by Hamas’s rules was heard loud and clear.
How do we know?
Because the past year, as both former prime minister Naftali Bennett and his successor, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, have pointed out repeatedly, has been the quietest in years for the residents of the communities bordering Gaza. IDF actions during Guardian of the Walls were followed up with forceful responses to every rocket or inflammable balloon sent over the border.
There are other elements responsible for the quiet as well, including the policy of allowing thousands of Gazans to work in Israel and then using that as leverage if rockets are fired, as well as Egypt’s active involvement, but the IDF’s response last May most definitely had an impact. The result: for the first time in years, life in the communities within range of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza has proceeded for months without disruption.
Until this week.
THIS WEEK roads in the South were closed, summer vacation activities for children were held close to bomb shelters, communities adjacent to the Gaza fence were under lockdown, and the train from Ashkelon to Netivot was suspended, following the arrest overnight Tuesday in Jenin of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in Samaria, Bassam al-Saadi, and his son in law.
All that disruption, by the way, was caused without PIJ firing a single shot or launching a single rocket or anti-tank missile.
All PIJ had to do was threaten retaliation for the arrest of Saadi, and the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis living in the South were disrupted. PIJ’s secretary-general Ziad al-Nakhala, welcomed in Tehran on Wednesday by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, had to be gleeful. His organization was able to shut down a big chunk of the “Zionist entity” just by issuing a threat. Israel is weak, he reportedly boasted.
Although the initial expectation was that the precautions taken in the South would last only a few hours and would then be lifted, that was not to be, and the high state of alert continued. Residents complained that because of the arrest of one terrorist leader in Samaria, their lives were turned upside down for days.
And again, all of that without a single shot being fired. This is something that could have far-reaching ramifications.
Far-reaching implications for Israel's enemies
Israel is engaged with enemies on multiple fronts: in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Enemies on each of those fronts are watching the country’s actions and reactions carefully, and seeing how they can apply the lessons learned on one front to their own.
For instance, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has stepped up his bellicose rhetoric threats against Israel if it goes ahead with plans to begin extracting gas from the Karish gas field in September that borders Lebanon’s territorial waters, is undoubtedly watching and taking notes.
If PIJ can shut down part of the country with a credible threat of sniper fire or anti-tank missiles, then what can Nasrallah do with a credible threat to launch missiles at Israeli population centers and strategic sites? The operative phrase here is “credible threat.”
PIJ threats are credible, Nasrallah's threats are not
Interestingly, just two days before the IDF clamped restrictions on the South after the arrest of Saadi and concern – apparently born both of threats and intelligence information – that the PIJ would respond with sniper, anti-tank or rocket fire, Hezbollah released a video threatening the gas rig Israel moved into Karish.
Yet that threat seemed to have little impact. It may be on the minds of the members of the security cabinet who will need to decide whether to accept a compromise over the maritime dispute being hammered out by US mediator Amos Hochstein, but Hezbollah’s threats and bluster have not led Israel to alter in any way its plans for Karish or its activity surrounding the rig.
Why not? Because Nasrallah always threatens and often does not carry out his threats. One reason he doesn’t carry out his threats is that he knows that if he does, he and Lebanon will be on the receiving end of a devastating blow from Israel.
PIJ IS not so deterred. Either it is not convinced that if it retaliates for the arrest of Saadi with sniper fire or anti-tank missiles, it will unleash IDF furor, or it just doesn’t care how badly Gaza gets pounded, because a concern for the well-being of the population there is not exactly its guiding light.
Giving Israel a heavy price tag
What PIJ is trying to do is to set a new price tag. Not only will Israel pay a price for military actions against Gaza, but it will also pay a price for going after PIJ in the West Bank, and will pay a price even if those men are arrested and not killed.
While this is a situation that Israel cannot tolerate, it places the government in a dilemma.
On the one hand, the IDF cannot afford to be deterred from carrying out activities it deems necessary in Judea and Samaria by the threat of retaliation from Gaza. On the other hand, it cannot just ignore those threats and the intelligence information and allow life in the South to continue as usual, thereby running the risk of sniper fire or anti-tank missiles being fired on citizens and causing fatalities.
The question is how to deal with those threats. Do you deal with them by going into a debilitating defensive crouch, or do you go on the offensive to remove those threats?
By Wednesday night, senior IDF officials were quoted as saying that the situation cannot continue, and that if life was to be disrupted in the South, then life would be disrupted in Gaza, even if it means another military campaign.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, speaking Wednesday at a Blue and White-New Hope faction meeting, pledged that “Israel will act with determination to restore normalcy to the area surrounding Gaza, and if it is not possible for them [the residents of the Gaza border communities] to return to normalcy, there will be no normalcy inside Gaza either.”
“Israel will act with determination to restore normalcy to the area surrounding Gaza, and if it is not possible for them [the residents of the Gaza border communities] to return to normalcy, there will be no normalcy inside Gaza either.”Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz
That is a veiled threat of some kind of military action.
Military action in an election campaign
Further complicating matters, however, is that this veiled threat of military action is coming during an election campaign, when whatever step is decided will be judged through the prism of that campaign. If Lapid and Gantz take strong action, there will be those who will say that a different approach could have been tried, and that they opted for a military response to appease angry voters in the South who want their normal lives back.
And if they hold back, they will be accused of taking that decision out of a desire not to engulf the region in flames three months before an election, not knowing what kind of effect that type of dramatic event might have on the voters.
One of the negative consequences of a continuous election cycle is that life-and-death decisions may be made not only on their merits but also because of cold political calculations, since a political price for those decisions might have to be paid immediately.
Periodic elections cloud decision-making periodically, which is normal and expected in a democracy. Constant elections cloud decision-making constantly, and that can be very harmful.
Lapid and Gantz, rival politicians competing for the same reservoir of voters, need to make a decision now regarding the situation in the South. Can they do that without immediate political considerations – including looking over their shoulders at what Netanyahu will say and do – heavily affecting their thinking? •