The string of recent terrorist attacks leaves no room for doubt: For the first time in a while, Israel faces combustible situations in both Gaza and Judea and Samaria.
In theory, the two sectors are unrelated. The terrorist who carried out the vehicular assault in Gush Etzion on Friday acted alone, without direction from any terrorist organization. (Though it’s certainly possible he was inspired by the terrorists who a week earlier murdered Dvir Sorek in the same area.) Nevertheless, the attack (like the one before it) can still be traced back to Hamas.
The terrorist organization was quick to hail the attack, stating it was the result of the struggle for the Temple Mount. These two words—Temple Mount—are a proven recipe for incitement, certainly during the week of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which traditionally sparks regional tensions anyway.
Thus far these terrorist attacks haven’t roused the Palestinian public from its general state of apathy. There have been no riots in Judea and Samaria—but Israel cannot ignore the rise in serious terrorist attacks, and especially their contagious effect. For now, decision-makers are refraining from bolstering forces stationed in Judea and Samaria, but increased vigilance is certainly required.
In Gaza, too, the general public remains largely disengaged from recent events. The border demonstration on Friday was “normal,” without an unusual number of participants—but the rocket fire on Friday and Saturday is another story.
While Friday’s rocket (which was intercepted) was dismissed within the defense establishment as “yet another act by recalcitrant and disillusioned jihadists”—similar to the infiltration attempts that were foiled in recent weeks—Saturday’s rocket barrage cannot be attributed to the neighborhood nutjob. There was a guiding hand behind it, or at the very least a blind eye turned to it by Hamas.
For numerous reasons, Israel doesn’t want another war in Gaza. Hamas understands this, and wants to exploit the situation, the same way it did prior to Israel’s April 9 election. It is simultaneously stirring the pot in Judea and Samaria—calling on the masses to take to the streets and carry out attacks, while funding and directing its cells to take immediate action—while continuing to play its familiar game of raising and lowering the flames in Gaza.
Israel will not restrain itself from responding to the rocket attack on Sderot, just as it didn’t restrain itself on Friday. However, the game it now has to play is more complex than simple tit-for-tat. If it responds too softly, Hamas will perceive weakness and continue applying pressure to win concessions (from more money to easing restrictions at the border crossings and other measures that can help it improve Gaza’s dire economic and humanitarian situation).
If Israel responds too harshly, it could become enmeshed in another undesired military campaign, which considering the recent uptick in tensions could also spark a serious escalation in Judea and Samaria.
Regardless, the government and the military’s first and foremost obligation is to the residents of the south. A reality of intermittent rocket attacks on Gaza-adjacent communities is intolerable; it needs to be dealt with immediately, even at the cost of escalation, with all the inherent risks.
If Israel is indeed forced to fight another war in Gaza, better for it to happen while children are on summer vacation and residents can be easily relocated to other parts of the country; and when operational conditions are relatively convenient from the army’s perspective (just two weeks ago, the Gaza Division concluded a large exercise and declared it was more ready than ever).
It’s desirable, of course, for Israel to calm the situation in the south before it boils over into a broad conflagration—as it has done several times in the past 18 months. To this end, Israel can also grant additional leeway to Egyptian mediators and United Nations envoys. But all this must result in one clear stipulation: If Hamas continues to play with fire, whether in Judea and Samaria, Gaza, or both, it will be engulfed by the flames.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.