Opinion

Israel’s containment problem

Fear of escalation and refusal to act inevitably leads to a greater crisis, as Israel’s learned in Lebanon.

Israel's Iron Dome defense system fires interceptor missiles as Palestinian terrorists launch rockets from the Gaza Strip, May 2, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israel's Iron Dome defense system fires interceptor missiles as Palestinian terrorists launch rockets from the Gaza Strip, May 2, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

For almost a decade now, Hamas has been holding two Israeli civilians—Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed—as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. It appears that the government has not put this issue on the front burner (or perhaps that public pressure has not yet reached unbearable proportions).

But the same government that has shied away from releasing Israelis from Gaza has now turned Israelis—and particularly the residents of the south—into captives held at the mercy of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In essence, Israelis have become pawns in a never-ending arm wrestling match between Gaza and Israel.

During the most recent conflagration, Gaza-based terrorists fired some 100 rockets at Israeli towns. Luckily, there were no deaths. This allowed Israel to de-escalate the situation and move on. But as soon as that round was over, a countdown to the next one began. When will it take place? No one knows. But it is clear that it is just a matter of time, and perhaps not much time.

Israel, true to form, has steered clear of a clash with Hezbollah and has been wary of igniting a flare-up with Hamas, treading carefully with Iran—but at the same time pouncing on Bashar Assad’s weakened Syria, using it as a punching bag to take out its anger. Israel has tried—without much success—to send a message of deterrence by striking our northern neighbor.

Yet, Israel’s actions in Syria no longer impress anyone, not even Assad, who considers the damage we inflict on him just a blip in the total destruction that his country has suffered over the past decade of civil war. These strikes no longer awe Hezbollah or Iran; both are willing to fight Israel to the very last Syrian and Palestinian.

The rationale behind Israel’s hands-off approach regarding Hezbollah and Hamas is that this policy helps ensure calm. But with regard to Gaza, it appears that Hamas is simply not strong enough to restrain PIJ, or simply doesn’t want to. Perhaps, like many others in our region, it smells blood in the water due. Our government is perceived to be weakened due to the country’s internal strife, lacking the stamina and confidence to deal with external challenges.

The result is that Israel is taken hostage in every escalation, whether triggered by visits of Jews to the Temple Mount or IDF raids in Judea and Samaria, or the death of a hunger-striking Palestinian prisoner.

During the height of Israel’s presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah used to forewarn residents of northern Israel when he planned to attack, to the point that he would tell them when they should get into bomb shelters. Nasrallah’s warnings were more believable than the Israeli government’s, whose own warnings often came late. Now, it is the PIJ that has followed this playbook, publicly alerting residents of the south—and usually keeping its promises. Soon enough, it might even tell them when they should seek shelter.

This cycle must be broken. When you constantly fear triggering an escalation and refuse to act to end rounds of violence—however limited and low in casualties they may be—this inevitably leads to a greater crisis, similar to Israel’s experience in Lebanon.

Israel is not PIJ; it needn’t respond, in Pavlovian fashion, to every instance of rocket fire. But it must have a pro-active and offensive-driven posture. It must carry out strikes that have meaning, and deliver calm and deterrence, not just subscribe to containment.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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