Israel Retaliates After Gaza Strikes, Escalation Unlikely

Israel’s latest air war in Gaza will probably end like the previous two did: in a tenuous ceasefire.

An Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft, November 30, 2008
An Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft, November 30, 2008 (Nehemia Gershuni)

In November 2012, the last time the Israeli Defense Forces had to conduct a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip, the campaign against the militant group Hamas lasted eight long days. When all was said and done, over one hundred Palestinians were dead, Gaza’s already warscarred population was forced to again rebuild their lives while Israelis had been reminded that the horrors of indiscriminate terrorism were still lurking around the corner.

One and a half years later, Israel and Hamas are locked in another confrontation along the Gaza border, with hundreds of rockets flying out of the coastal enclave and hundreds of airstrikes conducted by the Israeli army in response. The shaky ceasefire that both sides signed in November 2012 has been shattered with a familiar cycle of rocket attacks and airstrikes that Israelis and Palestinians have grown to expect.

It is a pattern that has become all too familiar to citizens of Israel and Gaza who simply want to live their lives in a relative degree of peace. That is, an incident involving civilians from one side sparks a response from the other, only to escalate into a full-blown conflagration. After several days of intense fire, everyone involved begins to slow down, reassesses their assumptions and rethinks the direction they wish to go in, until finally exploring an end to hostilities. This is how Operation Cast Lead ended in 2009 and how Operation Pillar of Defense ended in 2012 — and it is how the latest flareup in violence is likely to stop. How long it will take to reach that point, however, is far from certain.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no doubt cognizant of the fact that sending troops into hostile and densely populated Gaza is a dangerous course of action. Although the Israeli security cabinet has authorized the deployment orders of an additional 40,000 reservists, the country has thus far chosen to use the full might of its air force to pound Hamas targets into the ground. Since Operation Protective Edge commenced on Monday, Israeli jets have hit more than two hundred Hamas targets. The number will probably go up over the next several days as the IDF expands its “operations against Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,” as Netanyahu put it.

Unfortunately, some of those airstrikes will result in the deaths of Palestinian civilians — men, women and children who either reside in the same area as Palestinian militants firing rockets or who happen to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, Israel’s top military officer, was defiant as he addressed the press on Tuesday. “We will now activate all of our force and take all the time that is needed in various stages in order to reach victory,” he said. “We will accomplish goals against Hamas, hurt it badly, remove its capabilities, defend our civilians and our country and we will exact from Hamas the full price of the strategic mistake that it has made.”

Yet just as the two previous operations against Hamas in Gaza ended with a tenuous agreement to stop the violence, Prime Minister Netanyahu will try to accomplish much the same objective: leveling just enough pain on Hamas to convince its leadership that suing for a temporary peace is preferable to a war it cannot win.

Netanyahu and the Israeli people may want to extinguish Hamas entirely but doing so would require a heavy handed, long-term, bloody campaign in a piece of territory the country was happy to vacate nine years ago. For now, restoring quiet on the southern front is the next best thing.

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