Analysis: A callous escalation

After the attack on the childrens' school bus, the gov’t must decide whether to seek restored calm or consider a major onslaught in Gaza.

IDF tank 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF tank 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The decision to target a school bus – even when taken by terrorists like those in the Gaza Strip – would not have been made easily. Plainly, this was a callous and deliberate escalation. Plainly, too, Israel would not respond with just a symbolic strike against, say, a smuggling tunnel.
The targets that the IDF struck from the air and the ground, immediately after the yellow school bus was hit by an anti-tank missile near Kibbutz Saad on Thursday, came from a list of targets that the Southern Command has on hand in the event of just such an incident. It is likely, though, that Israel’s response will not end there.
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The bus was driving near Kibbutz Saad, about 2.5 km. from the Gaza border. The missile was not launched directly along the border, but from at least a kilometer to a kilometer-and-a-half away – meaning that the Palestinian who fired it was skilled in firing anti-tank missiles.
The missile was either a Russian-made Kornet or Faggot anti-tank missile – hoards of which have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead. The first such missile was fired at an Israeli Merkava Mk 4 tank a few months ago, bringing the IDF to deploy its battalion of tanks equipped with Trophy active-protection systems along the border with the Gaza Strip.
Whoever fired the missile likely had their own agenda. If fired by a small splinter group in Gaza, it could be an attempt to derail efforts for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas – or an attempt to drag Israel and Hamas into a larger conflict.
Either way, the IDF will likely seek to extract a heavy price from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations that might have been involved. Islamic Jihad, for example, has shown in recent weeks that it is becoming a more dominant player in the Gaza Strip and acts independently and without Hamas consent.
The IDF though will be acting under orders from a government that will need to decide where it wants to take the escalation in the Gaza Strip – towards a large Cast Lead-like operation, or toward an exchange of blows with the aim of renewing the “calm” in and around the Strip.
The terrorists will likely depict the attack as “retaliation” for recent Israeli strikes at Hamas. The first of these took place last Saturday morning, when the air force bombed a car in southern Gaza carrying senior Hamas operatives, who the IDF said were planning attacks against Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula. A second was on Tuesday night, when the air force, according to foreign reports, bombed a car in Sudan carrying a senior Hamas operative.
Thursday’s anti-tank missile attack was likely planned in advance. One indicator is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced last week that they would retaliate for the bombing of the Hamas cell in southern Gaza.
The second indicator that this was a synchronized and planned attack was the orchestrated rocket and mortar barrage that rained down on southern Israel immediately following the bus strike.