In some of the most intense cross-border fighting since Israeli troops last entered the Gaza Strip en masse over three years ago, dozens of rockets were lobbed by Palestinian militants into Israel, with the Jewish state carrying out airstrikes on suspected terrorist facilities.
Over a span of four days, Israel hit rocket squads and weapon depots in the strip with near pinpoint accuracy. Small bands of militants retaliated with a torrent of rocket fire against communities in the south of Israel.
Remarkably, not a single Israeli civilian was killed even as one hundred and fifty crude missiles were launched from the coastal enclave.
Israel’s newly installed “Iron Dome” defense system intercepted many of the missiles before they hit the ground with a nearly 90 percent success rate. Only a few projectiles hit populated areas. One landed in a schoolyard that wasn’t not occupied at the time.
The fighting once again resembling a game of tit for tat that was only suspended as a result of Egyptian mediation. Although a ceasefire is now in place, the violence could easily resume if a single unauthorized mortar is launched by a small team.
The notable difference between this latest incident and similar rounds of skirmishes that have occurred since Israel undertook a crushing military offensive in Gaza over three years ago is that the former was carried out by minor Palestinian factions, including the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas, which controls the territory, largely stayed in the background, both to salvage its internal strength and for the practical reason of saving itself from massive Israeli retaliation.
If there was anything that could be gleaned from Israel’s 2008-2009 Caste Lead operation, it was the immutable assertion in the region and the broader international community that Hamas’ military infrastructure was severely degraded in just over a month of conflict.
Hamas seems to have gotten the message, knowing full well that any follow up operation by the Israel Defense Forces would be much longer in duration and stronger in intensity. The organization today is neither capable nor unified enough as a movement to confront Israel in the way it chose to confront it in the past — with persistent mortar fire, regardless of the consequences.
This development tends to be pushed aside whenever another round of violence hits the news but it is important to bring up, if only for the lone reason of demonstrating the group’s changing behavior over the past two to three years.
Yes, Hamas is still a dangerous organization in military terms and Israel still considers it to be one of its most serious security challenges. But in a matter of only a few short years, Hamas has evolved from a purely militant group to a hybrid and somewhat pragmatic organization, touring the region and trying to get on the good side of Arab leaders instead of just resorting to missile attacks.
Hamas’ leaders may technically remain opposed to any formal peace settlement with Israel but they also understand that confronting the Jewish state with force would be a losing proposition for its survival at a moment when they are trying desperately to increase their popular image in the Arab world and peel off Palestinian supporters from the mainstream Fatah movement.
Having one foot in politics and another in militancy is not as easy at it sounds, especially when militant activity could potentially weaken Hamas’ political credibility in the minds of world leaders.