Israel Expands Airstrikes Against Gaza Militants

Israeli Defense Forces launch the most extensive bombardments in four years’ time.

An Israeli F-15 fighter jet takes off from Hatzerim Air Force Base near Beersheba, December 31, 2009
An Israeli F-15 fighter jet takes off from Hatzerim Air Force Base near Beersheba, December 31, 2009 (IDF)

Israeli Defense Forces on Wednesday launched the most extensive aerial bombardment against suspected militant facilities in the Gaza Strip in four years’ time before heavy rocket fire from the Palestinian territory killed three Israelis on Thursday.

The Israeli-Gaza border has seen this kind of violence before. Hardly a month goes by without a rocket being fired from the coastal strip into a southern Israeli community. When such an attack occurs, the Israeli air force tends to respond immediately with a precision airstrike on a rocket launching post or ammunitions facility used by Palestinian terrorist groups. This has strategy has served Israel well in recent years — military infrastructure was destroyed and rocket fire would usually decrease for a while.

But the routine has become increasingly untenable. Rather than the rocket fire dying down, militant groups based in Gaza have begun to increase their operations after Israel hit their positions in the territory.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that also governs Gaza, used to be the main perpetrator. Their role has diminished significantly. Smaller groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and fringe Salafist groups inspired by the Al Qaeda ideology have taken matters into their own hands, sometimes outside Hamas’ purview.

With so many groups operating in such a confined area, it is often difficult from the outside to figure out which militant organization launched an attack. Israel continues to lay the entire blame on Hamas for the violence since they administer the area. The reality is more complicated.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for January, the political situation in Israel is also tense. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to draw more criticism from the left for his peacemaking record with the Palestinians and his at times adversarial relationship with recently reelected President Barack Obama of the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally. The violence on the Gaza border could provide ammunition to the opposition. With more than one hundred rockets having rained down on southern Israel since last Saturday, it is imperative that the premier addresses his allies as well as his opponents in a strong but measured tone.

Netanyahu took that path during his Sunday cabinet meeting, telling ministers in his coalition government that Israel will never waver in its responsibility to protect its citizens.

The president situation is similar to the one in December 2008. Back then, Israelis were dodging thousands of rockets attacks, most of which were claimed by Hamas. The violence was so threatening and politically damaging that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister at the time, ordered the military to draw up and execute full-scale aerial and ground operation for the Gaza Strip. The relentless bombing routed Hamas fighters but also devastated the territory’s already decrepit infrastructure while more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed in the process.

Whether Netanyahu follows his predecessor’s example remains to be seen.