By Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
Sunday was another grueling day for Negev residents as dozens of missiles and mortar shells rained down from the Gaza Strip, leaving three people with shrapnel wounds and forcing hundreds of thousands into their protected spaces.
The Israel Air Force killed two Islamic Jihad activists in a retaliatory strike, but the escalation in the south is increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intensify Israel's military response.
On top of this, tension on the border with Syria is growing: The IDF fired a warning missile into the Syrian-controlled area of the Golan Heights on Sunday, after several instances in which the fighting in Syria's civil war had inadvertently spilled over into Israeli territory.
Gaza, however, remains the main problem for Netanyahu. The more intensely the southern residents protest what they see as the government's abandonment of their security, the more seriously he will have to consider taking tougher measures, with a resumption of targeted killings the most likely possibility.
Netanyahu, who is preparing for January's election, is already being attacked in the political arena for not responding more forcefully. But he knows that his range of options against Hamas is limited. Israel is at this stage trying to avoid a ground operation a la Cast Lead. One reason is that the diplomatic reality now is far different than it was when that offensive was launched in 2008: Israel fears a direct confrontation with the new regime in Egypt and it knows that neither the United States nor Europe will be as tolerant of a large-scale military operation this time around.
There was no evidence Sunday along the Gaza border that the IDF was making any special preparations for an operation. Assassinations don't require very much preparation, though. All that's needed is a decision, but that, too, is a gamble, because it's hard to know how Hamas would react to such an initiative. Right now Hamas is looking pretty sure of itself. Its leaders didn't hesitate to take responsibility for some of the attacks over this past week, in a way that Israel saw as particularly provocative.
Once again there were reports yesterday of Egyptian efforts to bring about a cease-fire. This has turned into a ritual, one that usual succeeds in bringing about a gradual and temporary lull. Even so, Hamas doesn't seem to be particularly impressed by Israel's threats. It hasn't made an effort to rein in the other factions, and its own men are even taking an active part in launching missiles. Hamas' justification is that, according to Palestinian sources, five of the seven most recent casualties of IDF fire in Gaza have been civilians, among them two children.
Palestinian analysts in Gaza estimated yesterday that this round would end shortly if there were no more deaths on either side. Gazans believe that Hamas' major challenge in maintaining restraint is not the Islamic Jihad, but Salafist extremists who entered Gaza through the tunnels from Sinai. On this point Hamas has no one to blame but itself. Since it controls the smuggling tunnels and did not object to the entry of Sinai extremists, it shouldn't be surprised if it has trouble controlling rocket fire against Israel.
The Palestinian factions are primarily targeting the IDF at the moment. The anti-tank missile fired at a Givati jeep on Saturday, that wounded four soldiers, was aimed at setting new "ground rules" along the border fence.
But when the IDF retaliates, the Palestinians target civilian communities. It's almost an exact rerun of what prevailed along the Lebanese border in 2000, with one difference: In Gaza there is no Israeli security zone and our forces are in our own territory most of the time.
The damage to the Gaza border communities is intensifying because the terrorists are using a relatively new weapon, 107 mm Katyusha rockets. This isn't a particularly innovative or sophisticated weapon, but it packs a much bigger wallop than Qassam rockets or mortars. While Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva enjoy the relative protection of the Iron Dome system, Sderot and the moshavim closer to Gaza have been taking hit after hit. As of last night, more than 110 rockets and mortars had been fired at the south since Saturday.
Yesterday's firing of a Tamuz rocket at Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces on the Golan Heights, meanwhile, was a clear signal to Damascus that it had better start monitoring the movements of its forces. Israel has no interest in getting involved in the Syrian civil war. All it wants is to deter the Syrian army from coming too close to the border as it continues its efforts to massacre the rebels.
Although Hamas had taken control of the Gaza Strip three-and-a-half years before the Arab Spring broke out, one can see the threats Israel must contend with on the Golan and in the Gaza Strip as symptoms of the same phenomenon.
Syria is a failed state, which has a hard time controlling its armed forces and has abandoned large areas to the opposition. This is a situation that could pose a risk to Israel as well.
Hamas, in Gaza, is a sort of half-state, but it, too, is looking and acting like a failed state, which can't impose its authority on all the armed factions operating in its territory.