Hamas restrained itself for almost 24 hours after soldiers from an elite Israel Defense Forces’ unit infiltrated Gaza, and only then did it begin raining rockets on Israel and even fired an anti-tank missile that badly wounded a civilian.
That temporary restraint was exploited partly to bury the seven people killed in the firefight with the Israeli commandos, among them Hamas’s Khan Yunis battalion commander, but mainly for consultations and deliberations with Islamic Jihad over the nature and scope of the response to the Israeli operation.
According to Palestinian officials, the opinions in this Gaza “cabinet” were split.
Some believed the response should be limited, saying that the Israeli operation had failed, the Israeli troops had been forced to retreat, and Israel had sustained a heavy, painful blow with the death of Lt. Col. M. The terrorist organizations took pains to tell the public in Gaza that thanks to their “operational alertness,” they were able to “chase off and defeat” the elite force of Israeli soldiers. They thought a “symbolic” punitive response would suffice.
However, others said the response to the Israeli action should be harsh and painful, even at the cost of an escalation and nullifying cease-fire efforts. More than the pain over the seven deaths, they fretted over the embarrassment and not knowing the purpose and objective of the Israeli infiltration.
It is safe to say Hamas is still fumbling in the dark trying to understand the Israeli operation, which is for the best. The group’s leaders understood immediately that it was not an assassination or abduction mission, and on Monday evening the Palestinians were already making baseless claims that the “infiltration was carried out on the basis of ‘intelligence information’ as to the whereabouts of the Israeli civilians” being held in Gaza. One Palestinian official claimed that the mission’s objective was obviously “far bigger” than assassinating someone in Hamas’s military wing.
Under these circumstances, in which Israel “allows itself” to infiltrate Gaza despite and during mediation efforts, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders chose to fire a Kornet anti-tank missile at a bus and bombarded civilian communities with hundreds of short- and medium-range rockets to deter Israel from similar actions.
This shooting, however, came with a warning that the scope and duration of the current skirmish depends on the Israeli response. In other words: If Israel settles for a limited and restrained response, without too many casualties on the Palestinian side, the incident can be contained and the diplomatic avenue will still be in play. But if Israel expands its bombings in Gaza, the armed organizations will increase their rocket range. In short: Hamas and Islamic Jihad not only want to dictate the rules of the game and when the shooting starts and stops, they also want to control the height of the flames.
Israel cannot come to terms with such a situation.
Hamas: ‘Israel wanted an agreement at all costs’
There is virtually no doubt that the massive rocket barrage at Israel on Monday night is about more than the recent chain of events.
To a large extent, it is also the result of the realization within Hamas and Islamic Jihad that Israeli leaders want to secure an arrangement and quiet at almost any cost and are averse to anything that could spark an uncontrollable conflagration.
This conclusion is the byproduct of declarations made by senior Israelis and the decision to allow cash and fuel to enter Gaza.
This understanding essentially demolished the foundations of Israeli deterrence against Hamas, which were intact for nearly four years. If Israel needs a ceasefire so badly, then it is also possible to rain down hundreds of rockets on it without worrying that the cease-fire efforts (which Hamas also badly wants and needs) will collapse.
This equation has to be changed. We must continue to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, and in the same breath signal to the terrorist organizations that Israel is not afraid of an escalation, even at the cost of terminating ceasefire efforts. There is no need to conquer the Gaza Strip; there are other ways to achieve the goal and restore deterrence.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.