My correspondents on the East Coast of the United States may view this note as a parallel to waiting for Sandy as she moved slowly towards home. It is the feeling I recall from my youth in Fall River, wondering every so many years if a hurricane said to be heading our way would actually take some of our trees and part of our roof.
What I'm talking about is the looming possibility of a severe Israeli response to the most recent wave of rocket attacks from Gaza. Like a hurricane still somewhere in the Atlantic, but following a course that might reach home, it appears that such an attack is more than a possibility, perhaps a probability, but not a certainty.
Something close to 100 rockets have been fired toward Israeli civilians since the most recent weekend. Several Israelis have been been treated in hospital for physical injures, and many more for shock and elevated tension. Schools have been closed, and more than one million people kept with 15 seconds of reaching a place of security in response to warning sirens. So far there have been no Israeli deaths. A number of homes and businesses have been damaged. Anti-missile batteries have succeeded in identifying incoming missiles heading for heavily populated areas, and destroying them in flight.
The IDF has responded with limited responses on identifiable targets. Perhaps 10 Palestinians have died and several dozen injured, but those casualties have spurred further attacks rather than ending them. Off and on we've heard reports of cease-fires negotiated by Egyptian officials, then reports that one or another Gazan faction expressed its dissatisfaction with Egyptian efforts by another barrage of rockets.
Politicians are making the rounds of the country to improve their chances of getting a high ranking on party lists in primary elections or committee selections in advance of January's national election, and they are competing with apocalyptic descriptions of what the IDF must do to stop the attacks. Local government officials from the border with Gaza onward to Ashkelon and Beer Sheva are in the media on an hourly basis, describing the suffering of their residents and demanding a firm response. The front page of Monday's Yedioth Aharonoth is typical of the coverage and commentary. The most prominent headline reads "Gaza trap." Op-ed pieces that begin on page one are:
•"Operation on the way"
•"How to reach kindergarten safely"
•"Hit hard and quickly"
•"There will be someone to talk to" (Dealing with Israel's capacity to threaten Hamas with its destruction if it does not reign in smaller and more extreme groups.)
•"Not only power" (Dealing with the need to build international legitimacy for a severe Israeli attack.)
An inside page of the newspaper reports the expressions of various party heads
• From SHAS: "Israel must regain the credibility of its threats"
•From Labor: "Create pressure"
•From Jewish Home (the new National Religious Party) "A powerful attack"
•From There is a Future (Yair Lapid0: "To renew targeted assassinations"
•From Kadima: "Hurt the leaders"
•From Meritz: "Arrange cease fire"
Among the other proposals are cutting off the substantial portion of Gaza's electricity that comes from Israel; destroying the limited generating resources in Gaza (likely to bring forth denunciations from the European governments that financed those facilities); and bringing down the upscale apartment blocs inhabited by Gaza's political and economic elites.
The heads of the IDF are consulting among themselves and with the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Reports are that they are assessing the situation and pondering appropriate responses. The Prime Minister has been contacting other governments to explain that Israel's patience has reached its limit.
For those of my correspondents who think about warfare as something heroic, to be done by other people far from them, or by the children of those other people far away, it would be appropriate to consider a number of the constraints facing Israel.
The friends of Israel's government, including leaders of the United States, Germany, Britain, and France, have limited tolerance for Israeli operations on the order of what happened in Gaza in 2009. That produced more than a thousand Palestinian deaths compared with about ten Israeli deaths. That operation came response to a heavy wave of rocket attacks, and produced a period of quiet that lasted for about a year.
Another constraint comes from Gaza itself. Hamas and other factions have acquired missiles, so far not used, that could reach Tel Aviv and beyond. Israeli officials do not want to provoke an attack on the country's congested center. The best case analysis is that the IDF knows the location of some long range missiles, and may be able to neutralize them before they are fired. However, they may be stored in the basements of apartment houses, whose residents would pay a heavy price for their destruction, with their misery portrayed on international media.
And unlike 2009, Hosni Mubarak is not the President of Egypt. Barack Obama threw him under the bus of what he perceived to be a democratic revolution. Now the Muslim Brotherhood controls the Egyptian government. That is the parent movement of Hamas, and the current Egyptian President has spoken of his commitment to protecting the Palestinians of Gaza.
It is not be all that clear what such a threat means, but Israel places high regard on keeping its most populous and powerful neighbor in a passive mode.
One wonders if the Iranians are involved in this, hoping that their Gazan allies will keep the Israelis busy, and away from their own nuclear installations.
There is other activity on the Syrian border. Mortar shells have landed on Israeli territory, perhaps directed against Syrian rebels fighting on the Syrian portion of the Golan. Israel initially complained to the United Nations forces meant to keep the armies apart. Then the IDF expended an expensive but accurate missile, which it could be sure would land as a warning without any injuries of Syrian personnel. More recently, in response to other Syrian mortar shells landing in Israeli territory, the IDF has--for the first time since 1973--directed fire against Syrian forces.
Latest news is of continued consultations at the peak of the Israeli government and military.
And to note another perspectives on all of the above, there are Arab voices, including one from a Member of the Knesset, blaming Israel for instigating the current escalation.
Whatever is decided, and put into operation, it will demonstrate once again the epigram pronounced by Yitzhak Rabin, i.e., "there will no bang and we're finished."
Not only have we been here before. We'll also be here again.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 12, 2012 09:52 AM