The rocket that struck the house in Beersheva was a game-changing event, which obligates Israel and Hamas to decide which way we go from here.
The fact that the people living in the house managed to escape the attack unscathed, due to the mother’s resourcefulness, is either a miracle or a model for proper behavior or both. On a practical level, none of this should matter. The air force uses the stark term “near miss” to describe mishaps that didn’t end in a crash or tragedy; it’s the only way to understand, inquire and learn the lessons to help avoid similar events in the future.
This is how the rocket strike in Beersheva should be viewed: as if it were lethal. This is the only way Israel can prevent the next rocket, which could kill. Let’s for a moment put aside the matter of intelligence (which needs checking), and why no one thought rockets would be fired into the heart of Israel.
But the troubling question is a different one. Two rocket-launchers were deployed in advance, pointed at Israel: one at Beersheva and the other at a city in central Israel. Hamas is supposed to properly protect its rockets, certainly those with strategic impact. If it isn’t doing so (which seems to be the case), then there’s one of two options: Either it looked the other way with a wink, which apparently didn’t happen, or it isn’t in control of its people.
This situation is disconcerting because the basic assumption pertaining to events in Gaza in recent months has been that Hamas is the sole power; that it can fan or lower the flames if it so chooses. The latest incident could reveal that Hamas is losing control, which, if true, could simplify Israel’s dilemma because it won’t have anyone on the other side to trust when it comes to implementing and preserving future agreements, if they are reached.
The way to determine this is to watch the ground level. Israel had three response options on Wednesday: The first, as bad as it sounds, is to do nothing; maintain the current course and hope for the best.
The second, problematic but gaining increasing support (mainly from Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but also other ministers and high-ranking IDF officers), is to launch a comprehensive operation to alter the reality with Gaza.
The third option, which looks to be preferred by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is to try changing the situation via other means, primarily diplomatic.
Hamas, it appears, is prepared for the second option but would prefer the third. It was taken off-guard by the Egyptian intelligence chief canceling his visit to Gaza (at Israel’’s request) and passed on multiple messages that it will work to calm tensions. Israel needs to give Hamas the only and most important test: the results test. It must demand a complete cessation of border terror, including incendiary kites and balloons. If Hamas upholds its end of the bargain for a sufficient period of time, it will be possible to discuss moving forwards—humanitarian gestures, opening border crossings, etc.
Such a move will transfer the dilemma to Gaza. If Hamas chooses war, it will be accused of starting it, in contravention of all understandings that have been reached, and it will immediately lose the support of Egypt and Arab countries. The alternative, from its perspective, is to swallow the bitter pill and bow its head, so it doesn’t get lopped off. This is the line currently being advocated by the leader of Hamas’s military wing, Yahya Sinwar, with an asterisk: Numerous casualties in Gaza will obligate him to respond, which could spark a chain reaction ending in a conflagration.
In the past, Israel preferred to start operations with a surprise opening move, one that would give it an advantage from the very beginning. Due to the already high-alert levels in Gaza, it will be hard to fashion a surprising opening salvo, which means that an operation—if Israel decides to launch one—could sputter, be protracted, drag on into the winter, and, of course, result in considerable casualties on the front lines and on the home front, and draw criticism due to the public’s natural tendency to lose patience.
This is a tough dilemma for the political echelon in an election year. Casualties in Beersheva would necessitate a very clear decision; even if the soldier tracking the rockets from the home front command center had sounded the sirens in Gush Dan (she didn’t because the radar calculated it would land in the sea), we would probably have woken up Wednesday morning to a different reality. The lesson is that decisions shouldn’t be made out of necessity, but out of choice.
It’s still possible, but the sand in the hourglass looks to be running out quickly.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.