The latest flareup of violence between Israel and Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip escalated on Thursday when the Israeli Air Force pounded Hamas facilities with missiles and Palestinian militants launched rockets into Israel, reaching as far as Tel Aviv.
The conflict has all the makings of a renewed confrontation similar to the three week Israeli operation in Gaza four years ago, when some 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis were killed before a ceasefire could be reached.
Thus far, the Israeli operation, code named Operation Pillar of Defense, has not reached the level of intensity that defined the last war with Hamas. But it should be noted that the operation is only in its third day and casualties will likely go up on both sides of the border.
Israel suffered its first casualties in the fighting on Thursday when a Palestinian rocket crashed into the top floor of an apartment building, killing three civilians. Nineteen Palestinians have lost their lives in the conflict so far, including twelve civilians.
The minor death toll, however, masks an otherwise undeniable fact: the latest air campaign on terrorist infrastructure has the potential to elicit significant consequences for the Israeli government if innocent Palestinians continue to die. This is precisely what happened during Operation Cast Lead which was successful in terms of curbing rocket attacks from the coastal strip but a dismal failure in a geostrategic sense. The United Nations, for instance, criticized Israel’s military for deploying excessive force in the conflict.
The international response from neighboring Arab countries has been muted this time. With the exception of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who pulled his ambassador from Israel and ordered his premier to travel to Gaza on Friday, most leaders in the Middle East seem more concerned about what is happening in their own countries than what is going on in the Holy Land. Ordinarily, the killing of Palestinians would be a casus célèbre for the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria but with his military trying to subdue a growing armed rebellion, the Palestinian cause is no longer the priority.
All of this could change depending on the course of the conflict. If more Palestinian civilians are killed and Israel suffers a greater number of casualties, the chances of reaching a ceasefire will decrease. When their civilians are killed by terrorist attacks, Israel tends to ramp up the pressure until terrorist infrastructure is destroyed or deterrence is reestablished. Peace, from Israel’s perspective, will be restored when the objective is complete.
It is impossible to predict how long Israel’s air campaign in Gaza will last or if the Israeli military will eventually deploy troops into the area to conduct clearing operations. There are reports from Israel that the defense minister Ehud Barak has called up 30,000 reservists to the Gaza border in anticipation of a ground invasion. If rockets continue to fall on Israel and civilians continue to die, Operation Pillar of Defense may well be expanded and the total disarmament of Hamas, however difficult to achieve, could become the goal of the operation.