The situation between Israel and Gaza is at a crossroads: return to the fragile status quo or a ground war
The last 24 hours in Gaza saw more targeted Israeli strikes and once again no significant retaliation from the terrorist factions that rule the territory. Israel has issued no special instructions to the civilian population and the schools remain open today, though only one quarter to one half of the parents chose to let their kids go attend classes.
It is clear though that Israel does not believe that the quiet will last. The best evidence of that is the deployment of yet another regular brigade to the Gaza border, raising the ground troop level to three full brigades. This level of troop deployment is not sustainable for the IDF. Regular combat brigades have a busy schedule of training and securing the volatile Israeli borders with Syria and Lebanon (Hezbollah), as well as providing personnel for securing the Israeli towns and villages in Judea and Samaria. Keeping this level of forces massed in one theater in full complement is only done when war is imminent or to send the message that war is what will happen if the enemy crosses the line.
The Gaza standoff is taking a political and psychological toll on both sides. On the Israeli side of the border, prime minister Netanyahu is taking a hit to his popularity, with over 50% of the respondents to a recent poll of citizens living close to the Gaza border expressing lack of confidence in his actions to solve the crisis. Urgent calls from the region to psychological distress lines have spiked lately and Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot, a working class town not far from the Gaza border, has recently issued an Arabic language communique to the Hamas in which he tells them that Sderot is strong in spirit and that the Hamas will never win. Clearly, this well-publicized step was targeted towards his own constituents as much as it was to the Hamas, showing that the people of Sderot needed a bit of a confidence boost from their elected leader.
On the other side of the border, Hamas can ill afford to be seen as the loser in this latest blow exchange with Israel. Last week marked the most serious civil unrest that Gaza has seen in many years, an unrest that had to be brutally put down by Hamas internal security forces. The people of Gaza are hardly unaware that their government deprives them of decent and dignified living while surrounding themselves with every luxury. The only reasons that this is tolerated are fear from Hamas security and the belief that only the Hamas can wage effective “resistance” against the “occupation”, meaning the occupation of places like Haifa from which many Arab refugees came to Gaza when Israel won its War of Independence in 1948.
The Utopian promise of a triumphant return to Haifa and other Israeli cities and the consequent looting of the rich spoils that the Jews have accumulated there is, to a large degree, what keeps Hamas in power. A loss to Israel would send a clear message that this goal is even more unlikely and remote, putting Hamas’s stranglehold on power in even more jeopardy.
The test will come this weekend, which in the Middle East starts of Friday. The worst case scenario is that extreme rioting at the border fence and attempts to storm it will result in double digits of Gazan casualties from Israeli fire, which will prompt the factions to open massed rocket fire on Israeli civilian centers, a fire that can only be stopped by a ground invasion. Feverish talks between Israel and the Hamas are being held via Egypt to try and forestall such an outcome. From its side, Israel has limited its air strikes to real estate destruction, trying to avoid casualties and refraining from targeting the Hamas leadership. The Hamas, so far, has not fired significant rocket barrages into Israel. Talks are ongoing, but time is running short.
Buildups to war are always politically, emotionally, and economically costly. Being the first to blink and retreat from the brink can often be even more so. Israel and the Hamas are like two weary boxers in the 11th round of a 12 round match. One is with his back to the corner with nothing to lose, while the other just wants to cut his losses, collect his paycheck and go back to his very nice home. It just so happens that the way home goes through the other guy, a guy who wouldn’t stay down without a knockout blow, a blow that is both costly and ethically challenging. Nobody wants to see what comes next, but come it must.