Officials in Israel view the recent escalation on the Gaza border as unusually severe. For the first time in a long while, Hamas is playing an active role in firing rockets and mortar shells at southern communities. Beyond this, the group does not make sure to restrain Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees activists as it did in the past.
The response came quickly, in order to make clear to Hamas that Israel’s patience is limited.
Since the beginning of December, 31 mortar shells and five Qassam rockets had been fired at Israel. Some 14 of them were fired between Monday and Tuesday afternoon. In previous months, some 12-15 mortar shells were fired every month. Meanwhile, the number of incidents along the Gaza border fence had been doubled this month. This also stems from the IDF’s reinforced anti-terror activity against Qassam cells; five cell members who attempted to fire rockets at the Negev were killed in the framework of these efforts.
As result of Hamas’ active participation in the attacks, the IDF operated with great force Monday night, striking group facilities and activists across the Strip. One of the attacks targeted two or three activists who took part in terror activity and hurt them. We can assume with great likelihood that the IDF will continue to respond severely in order to make it clear to Hamas that it is behind held accountable for the escalation.
Thus far, Hamas was careful not to get directly involved in attacks on Israel, yet it appears the group changed its conduct for various reasons:
• The long period of time (two years) that has elapsed since Operation Cast Lead. Israeli officials estimate that its deterrent effect had been eroded as result.
• Hamas’ buildup through the acquisition of long-range rockets and anti-tank missiles, including the relatively advanced Korent (which damaged an Israeli tank two weeks ago.) This buildup boosts the organization’s self-confidence, and especially that of its military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. As result, activists who had been complaining of inaction had been apparently allowed to operation.
• Pressure exerted by radical groups – mostly Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, as well as groups inspired by Global Jihad – to operate against Israel, and their claims that Hamas abandoned the struggle.
• Other possible reasons include the impasse in negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and the deadlock in the Gilad Shalit talks. Foggy weather conditions also play a role and may prompt Hamas men to estimate that the IDF is less capable of hurting them than in summer.
As result of the above, Hamas has started to challenge the IDF through activity on both sides of the fence. It mostly aims to minimize the IDF’s preventative operations within Palestinian territory, hundreds of meters into the Strip. The IDF does not allow Palestinians to approach this buffer zone, as these are usually attempts to plant explosive devices or fire missiles and rockets at troops.
Hamas is now trying to impose new rules of play and prevent activity beyond the fence, while at the same time it operates east of it via mortar attacks on IDF troops and Israeli communities.
Although the attacks are still not approaching the level that prevailed beforeOperation Cast Lead, we are seeing a clear quantitative change. However, officials in Israel estimate that Hamas is not interested in restoring the intensive friction that prevailed before the large-scale operation and that it is still deterred; the group fears that IDF activity would thwart the rebuilding efforts of the Hamas government in the Strip and place the population in new distress.
Despite this estimate, the IDF does not intend to show restraint in the face of the latest Hamas activism, and this fact would likely be made clear to Hamas’ Gaza leadership in a convincing and blatant matter, and soon. Through this tough line, Israel intends to signal to Hamas that should it continue to allow its members to fire at Israel and carry out attacks, and should it fail to restrain “rogue groups,” an even harsher response would be considered.