The ball was in Israel’s court on Saturday night. Through mediators, Hamas expressed a willingness to restore calm, but Israel hesitated, out of concern the escalation and the accompanying blackmail would nevertheless continue in the coming weeks.
Were this not a particularly sensitive time, with the country set to mark Remembrance Day and Independence Day this week and host the Eurovision song contest next week, Israel would have changed the rules of the game on Saturday, in relative terms when it comes to Hamas and entirely in relation to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is also responsible for the current round of fighting. Less than one week after the attempt to fire a rocket at the southern city of Ashdod, and despite explicit warning from Jerusalem, PIJ once again decided to go wild. The organization was responsible for Friday’s sniper fire that wounded an Israeli officer and a female soldier on the border with Gaza.
Israeli officials contemplated responding directly against PIJ, but ultimately, the decision was made to attack Gaza’s rulers: Hamas. Israel attacked one of the terrorist organization’s posts, but unlike in the past, this time the post was manned. Three Hamas members were killed and Hamas decided to retaliate by wildly firing at the entire western Negev region while coordinating its activities with PIJ.
For a moment, the intensive rocket fire recalled that day last November when over 500 rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza. At the time, Israel responded in a controlled manner, avoiding an escalation for three main reasons: a desire to focus its efforts on the Hezbollah terror tunnels in the north, stormy weather that limited the Israel Air Force’s activities and the fact that the escalation followed a failed operation by Israeli special forces in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
This current round, however, comes in the absence of comparable circumstances. In security talks held on Saturday, Israeli officials were of the unanimous opinion that avoiding a sharp response this time would have the opposite effect: Instead of this being seen as an Israeli gesture, it would be seen as fear of taking action. The outcome would be that at any moment, Hamas and PIJ could renew their fire and blackmail Israel anew, making the man responsible for scoring the participants at the Eurovision song contest Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar.
A reluctant Hamas
Hamas, which was less eager to join the current round of fighting, sent a clear message through the Egyptians and U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov Saturday night that it was willing to bring the violence to an immediate halt. Israel has wavered between a desire to end this round in a similar way to previous rounds, and the understanding that a dangerous threshold has been breached. Yet, both Jerusalem and Gaza have avoided radically changing the rules of the game: Israel has taken care not to cause too many casualties in the coastal enclave, while Hamas (and PIJ, for that matter) have not expanded the rocket fire to Beersheva and Tel Aviv, despite threats to do just that.
Past experience and logic teach us that this round of fighting will also likely come to an end quickly. The Israel Defense Forces’s decision not to call up a large number of reinforcements could be a sign that the officials at Defense Ministry headquarters do not believe we are on the brink of another extended round of fighting. To the list of factors that have limited the fighting thus far we can add the month-long fast set to begin with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Sunday night. It is doubtful Hamas wants to ruin the holiday for Gaza’s residents. If it accepts the promised Qatari funds, at a few days’ delay, Hamas will have every interest in calming the winds of war.
But PIJ will continue to keep both sides in a sensitive state. In recent months, it is clear the Iranian-backed organization has deviated from Hamas’s desired course of action. This stems from its new leadership in Damascus, headed by Ziad Nakhala, and clear Iranian pressure to act, along with the fact that its operatives are eager for action. Israel has warned Hamas that a decision to avoid reining in PIJ will lead to a greater conflagration; while the message may have been received, it has yet to be implemented on the ground.
Israel then will likely demand to handle the job by itself. The only question is when. Does Israel, due to the holidays and Eurovision, hold off for now? Or does it change the rules of the game to deliver a strong blow, even at the price of a few days of fighting, in the hope it will restore calm for a little longer than just a few weeks.
No one in Israel is under any illusions: Even if Israel goes for the first option, it will soon come time for the second. The clock is ticking, and patience is running out on both sides. If a breakthrough is not quickly reached in talks for calm in Cairo, we may have reached a point in which, after extensive talks, missiles will take the place of words.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for “Israel Hayom.”
This column originally appeared on Israel Hayom.
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