Israel’s Gamble in Gaza: The Perils of Operation Pillar of Defense

Israel’s latest campaign in Gaza, which began on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed Jabari, and air strikes on the group’s long-range rocket launchers, is a gamble—and one that Israel might lose. Its goal is to compel Hamas to stop shooting rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip and to crack down on other groups who are also doing so. Hamas, however, will find it hard to bend to Israeli pressure. In turn, it will be up to outside states, particularly Egypt, to foster a deal to end the fighting.

After Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008-2009 that resulted in over 1,000 Palestinian deaths and tremendous destruction, relations between Hamas and Israel wavered uneasily between hostility and tacit cooperation. True, Hamas’ rhetoric toward Israel remained hostile, but the number of rockets that went over the border plunged and most of them were launched not by Hamas, but by more radical groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas feared that launching large numbers of rockets would prompt Israel to again retaliate harshly and devastate Gaza, thus jeopardizing Hamas’ political position there. At times, the group even tried to restrain its uncomfortable bedfellows. Indeed, although Hamas and Israel would both deny it, their interests were often aligned. As Aluf Benn, one of Israel’s leading analysts, put it after Jabari’s death, “Ahmed Jabari was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza.”

But Jabari’s first allegiance, of course, was to Hamas. And, over time, Hamas became increasingly accepting of attacks on Israel. As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more—over 800 before the current operation began. Most of these attacks came from other Palestinian groups, but more recently Hamas seemed to take a more active role in the violence, openly tolerating other groups’ gambits and carrying out some strikes itself.

By this week, those attacks had “made normal life impossible for over one million Israelis,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained on Thursday. And so he and his government are again pounding Hamas in an attempt to restore the post-Cast Lead status quo, in which Hamas polices both itself and the rest of the strip. So far, Operation Pillar of Defense, as Israel calls it, has resulted in the deaths of 18 Palestinians (of whom roughly half were civilians). Hamas’ response has killed three Israelis.

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