Tel Aviv shocked by robust response
Israeli decision-makers are reportedly taken aback that Hamas responded this week with such force to its attacks on smaller Palestinian resistance groups, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Ismail Hawash no longer uses the winding road shortcut from his home in Al-Qararah village to work in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. The traffic on this road has become too dangerous because it is a region on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, which Israeli tanks are heavily shelling whenever there is more escalation by Israel. This is especially true during the most recent confrontation that ended mid-week. Although a new truce was announced between Israel and resistance groups, Hawash and his neighbours avoid using this road and instead are forced to walk on a rugged dirt track to reach their work.
The recent escalation during one week killed 16 Palestinians, including four children, and injured dozens. Meanwhile, one Israeli soldier and eight settlers were injured. Escalation began when the army carried out air raids on several regions in the Gaza Strip and assassinations of some resistance figures in response to two men who infiltrated the border into Israel from a location near the triangle between Gaza, Egypt and Israel. The operation killed one Israeli soldier and injured another.
A feature of the latest escalation is that the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades -- the military wing of Hamas -- are active in responding to Israel's air raids, which took Israeli decision-makers by surprise. The Brigades announced that it launched 130 rockets at Israeli military bases that are located near the Gaza Strip. According to Roni Daniel, a military commentator for Israeli Channel 2, it came as a surprise to both political circles as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Brigades responded in such an escalated manner. "Decision making circles in Tel Aviv assumed that Hamas would not take any action that would cause Israel to deliver a strong blow to its rule, and therefore [Hamas] would not respond to attacks by Israel that targeted other factions," reported Daniel.
Daniel quoted senior military sources as saying that Israel thought it would be able to control the level of escalation, since it has always been able to suppress smaller Palestinian factions easily and quickly by using intense air raids and targeted assassinations. However, now that Hamas is taking part in the response to Israel's air raids, this has upended the entire formula. According to Daniel, Israel realises that it is not in its interest at present to escalate confrontations with the Palestinian resistance since this scenario could cause Israel to launch an extensive military attack that would not serve Israel's interests.
Former Minister of Defence Binyamin Ben-Eliezer argued that Israel knows that a military campaign on the Gaza Strip could threaten Israel's efforts to build a broad international coalition against Iran's nuclear programme. "When the world sees pictures of bodies of children and women arriving at Gaza hospitals, many countries will prefer not to cooperate with us," Ben-Eliezer said. He added that for the sake of Israel's strategic interests, it is important for Tel Aviv to mobilise the world community against Iran's nuclear programmes and nothing should jeopardise the formation of this coalition.
Ben-Eliezer added that decision makers in Israel are hesitant about expanding attacks on Gaza because such a move would result in more erosion of Israel's international standing, and would increase attacks on the legitimacy of the Hebrew state. He noted the damage caused to Israel as a result of Operation Cast Lead that increased the volume of suits filed against Israeli officials in many European courts.
Retired General Ron Tira, who has served in several senior positions in Israel's military intelligence, pointed to another factor that caused leaders in Tel Aviv to try to stop escalation and ask Egypt to mediate between Israel and Hamas to end recent confrontations as soon as possible. According to Tira, Israel is keen on a truce because it is concerned that escalation would negatively impact future relations with Egypt. After the Arab revolutions, he explained, Tel Aviv now realises that Egyptian public opinion carries more weight with decision making circles in Cairo, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Mursi, became Egypt's first post-revolution elected president.
"It is certain that no one in Israel wants to give Mursi any reason to take action that could undermine the Camp David Treaty which is one of the cornerstones of Israel's national security."
Neither is Hamas interested in escalating confrontation with Israel. It is more focused on reversing the negative impression it is saddled with among the Palestinian public since the last confrontation with Israel a few months ago, when Israel killed 17 members of Islamic Jihad without Hamas responding. An informed source in Hamas told Al-Ahram Weekly that the group's popularity receded when it did not respond to Israel's attacks at that time, while Islamic Jihad gained a lot of ground. The source added that Hamas's leadership also knows that it is not in its interest to escalate to the extent of risking an extensive confrontation with Israel, since the balance of power is heavily tipped in Israel's favour. At the same time, Arab parties that the group could rely on in confronting Israel are distracted with domestic problems.
As well as tensions with Israel, Hamas is concerned about the declaration of an unknown Islamic group claiming responsibility for the infiltration operation that killed an Israeli soldier at the beginning of last week. The group seems to belong to the same school as Al-Qaeda, since it "dedicated" the operation to Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda who was killed by the US one year ago. Hamas views the claim of responsibility of this group as "a distortion of Palestinian resistance and gives Israel reason to attack Gaza and put it under siege."
Yehia Moussa, a leading Hamas figure and deputy leader of its parliamentary bloc, said that the claim of responsibility gives the occupation justification to put the Gaza Strip under siege and legitimises attacks on the Strip. "Gaza succeeded in becoming the centre of sympathy and a symbol of oppression, while uncovering the injustice and arrogance of occupation," Moussa told the Weekly. "Therefore these actions help alter this image that the world has, and undermines the Palestinian national cause."
He added that although his group supports any operation that hurts the occupation, and in particular its army, "We must be very careful not to use the Palestinian cause for international agendas that do not serve Palestine and its just cause."
Moussa indicated that Palestinian resistance is a symbol of moderation because it is armed with international sympathy that understands its motivations and goals. He also warned that declarations like the one of the Islamic group revive in the minds of many echoes of the 9/11 attacks that benefited Israel.
Meanwhile, Amos Gilad, the director of policy and political-military affairs at Israel's Ministry of Defence, denied that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is involved in the two missiles launched against Israel from Sinai.
Gilad told Israeli Radio: "The Muslim Brotherhood, which is seeking to change the face of the Middle East, does not participate in these attacks." He also denied reports in Haaretz newspaper that Sinai Bedouins launched two missiles upon orders of the Brotherhood and in coordination with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.