Hamas and other armed Gazan factions launched a widespread rocket and mortar assault on southern Israel as evening descended on Monday, in an assault seen by the terror organizations as a calculated risk.
The battering began with a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile that struck a bus near the Gazan border, injuring one Israeli, before more than 400 projectiles bombarded southern Israeli communities.
The Israel Defense Forces responded with a growing number of airstrikes on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets across the Gaza Strip, including terror tunnels, weapons manufacturing sites and the destruction of Hamas’ Al-Aksa television station in the heart of Gaza City, which the military said passed along operational information to terrorists.
IDF spokesman Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters that Hamas in its actions is “bringing destruction upon the Gaza Strip,” and warned that the attacks are “unacceptable.”
The fact that Hamas chose to target Israeli civilians to revenge the killing of its fighters the previous night, during a firefight with an elite IDF unit that was exposed while on an important mission in Gaza, will likely prove to be a step too far for Israel.
Initial signs suggest Israel will not seek to contain the situation, as it has during previous escalations in recent months. (The parties reached a ceasefire just before press time, but it was unclear whether it would hold.)
Dr. Reuven Erlich, director of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, said that the latest escalation should not be viewed in isolation.
Noting that many hundreds of rockets have already been fired at Israel since March 30, when Hamas launched the “Great March of Return” and began escalating violent incidents on the Gaza-Israel border, Erlich said “this is a policy that Hamas initiates, and it is one of controlled escalation.”
Erlich, a former IDF Intelligence analyst, said the escalation rounds should be seen as part a wider policy, which includes violent border marches instigated on Fridays. He added that Hamas “finds a new excuse every time to initiate an escalation round. Now, we are in a new round. The excuse is not important.”
Assessing that the situation looks likely to escalate, Erlich cautioned against the idea of trying to stabilize the situation with humanitarian gestures or suitcases with millions of dollars of Qatari cash in them, like those that entered Gaza in recent days. Trucks full of fuel will not achieve that goal either, he said.
“Hamas is acting like the mafia. It is getting protection money, then it lowers the flames, and then very quickly raises them again,” he stated.
“The same hand that lowers the flames is the one that raises them back up. Gaza will not calm down until Israel finds a way to return to the status quo of quiet that was in place until March 30 of this year [the date when Hamas initiated the first mass border disturbances],” said Erlich.
“Hamas feels that its policy is paying off. It absorbed tolerable strikes [from Israel]. It has assessed, based on Israeli statements, that there will not be a full-scale war here,” explained Erlich. “Hence, it is willing to continue this policy. Until a situation is created in which Hamas concludes that this is not worth its while, this will not change.”
He compared Hamas’ increasingly dangerous risk-taking to the actions of a burgeoning drug addict who becomes used to a certain dosage, and then increases it. This pattern can be seen in the hundreds of rockets that Gazan terror organizations fired in the space of just three hours on Monday evening.
“They do not know when to hit the brakes, and they are raising the stakes,” Erlich said. “Hamas must conclude, before it engages in these maneuvers — including the Friday ‘return marches’ — that this will not be worthwhile.”
Such a shift may well be in the works, as the IDF begins targeting symbols of Hamas’s sovereignty in Gaza in a way it hasn’t done before, like the strike on Hamas’s official television channel building.
The IDF spokesman also signaled that the military is prepared to go further, if needed — alluding to the possibility of a stepped-up, persistent air campaign, and a possible ground offensive.
“What we’ve done is enhance our capabilities with infantry forces, with different defensive systems such as Iron Dome,” Conricus said. “And we’ve enhanced our intelligence, as well as our abilities to strike these targets.” PJC