On Wednesday night a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the southern Israeli town of Beersheva (a resident, I heard the sirens and the boom). It damaged several homes and vehicles, and ten people including four children had to be taken to hospital for anxiety (I heard the ambulances too).
Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza—apparently hitting the responsible terror cell itself and injuring three of its members, and various other terror targets in the Strip, causing damage.
Amid a general escalation in rocket and mortar fire (and other terror) from Gaza in recent months, the Grad attack on Beersheva marked a specific escalation in two ways. For one, the Iranian-made Grad is a longer-range and more powerful rocket than the Kassams that Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, have mostly been firing from there.
For another, Beersheva is a larger and more distant target than any other that Hamas has struck since Operation Cast Lead (Israel’s war on Gaza terror) two years ago, during which seven rockets hit Beersheva and seriously injured two people including a seven-year-old boy.
The timing of Wednesday night’s attack is no mystery. Two Iranian warships—the first to have crossed Egypt’s Suez Canal since the 1979 Iranian Revolution—were simultaneously heading to the harbor in Latakia, Syria. Even a New York Times report acknowledges that the upheaval now sweeping the Middle East is, rather than a triumph of democracy, a boost for Iran and its allies.
In other words, the Grad firing represents growing Axis of Evil assertiveness and a further erosion in the deterrence that Israel partly reestablished with Operation Cast Lead. Add in Thursday’s news about four new nuclear sites in Syria, and the mood for Israelis is something other than the celebration that pundits like Thomas Friedman and Peter Beinart—shining optimists of a new, peaceful, liberal Middle East—have harshly demanded of them.
An Israeli institute with close ties to Military Intelligence also reports that Hamas is trying to exploit the Mubarak government’s fall to get Egypt to allow more weapons into Gaza. Mubarak, fearful of Hamas and its parent-organization the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt itself, had acted to stanch the flow—clearly with limited success. Egypt’s current military rulers’ attitude is uncertain; again it’s hard for Israelis to be optimistic.
Israel has never had attractive choices on Gaza, having to decide between the Scylla of occupying over a million deeply hostile Arabs and the Charybdis of terror from the Strip. Clearly, retaliatory raids like Wednesday night’s—wounding three jihadists ready for martyrdom and damaging some facilities—do not deter and have only symbolic value. Is another Cast Lead-type offensive, then, the only real option?
It would risk, for one thing, pushing the new military regime in Cairo—still an unknown quantity—into backing Hamas, and possibly even taking up arms against Israel to prove its nationalist credentials. It would also risk playing into Iran’s hands: one thing Tehran, which has its own domestic problems, may well relish is a diversionary spectacle of Israeli bombs hitting Gaza while the West—in the spirit of the Goldstone Report—joins the Arab and Muslim worlds in a fury of condemnation.
On the other hand, words like Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s on Thursday—that Israel would “not tolerate the bombardment of our citizens” and “I wouldn’t suggest that anyone test our resolve”—risk sounding dangerously hollow. Hamas, backed by Iran, is testing Israel’s resolve and getting away with it. Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak face the difficult task of deciding how much to tolerate—or when to respond more substantially and how.
To an extent it’s a game of chance. A single Grad or Kassam that causes more serious, even catastrophic harm could force Israel to act—without hope of Western (or any other) backing.