Amos Harel
March 24, 2011 - 12:00am

Israel's response to the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip remained limited on Thursday. One reason could be that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is abroad and the Israel Defense Forces will escalate its attacks when he returns. Another could be that Israel understands that it currently has little to gain from an escalation with Hamas.

The air force's attacks on Thursday seemed symbolic. Gaza residents told Haaretz that among the targets was the old intelligence building, abandoned years ago, and a Hamas post no longer in use that had been bombed five times before.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, held up for a rare weekend in Israel by the visit of U.S. counterpart Robert Gates, said that "we can't become victims of our own decisions. We will consider the extent to which we should react, but we have to react. We are determined to bring back the quiet and we can't do that without resorting to force from time to time."

Barak's long-winded phrasing reflects the Israeli leaders' deliberations; they are asking themselves how to stop the rocket fire without a head-on clash with Hamas in which ground forces are sent into Gaza. Yesterday, rockets reached as far north as Ashdod.

Gates told Barak yesterday that the United States supports Israel's right to self-defense, but it's hard to believe that the Obama administration will be anywhere as supportive of Israel as George W. Bush was in the last weeks of his second term during Operation Cast Lead. Even though Western countries are using Tomahawk missiles against Libya, an extensive Israeli bombing of Gaza will always be disapproved of. One of the steps Israel is weighing is resuming targeted assassinations of the heads of terrorist organizations.

In Gaza, senior Islamic Jihad officials announced they would stop the rocket fire if Israel stopped its attacks, but on the ground, the organization continued its barrage. The Popular Resistance Committees, a Hamas subsidiary organization, joined in the rocket attacks. Hamas doesn't want an escalation, but it's not taking enough steps to enforce the cease-fire on the smaller factions. Even if the quiet returns, it may not be for long.

Israel's home front, meanwhile, appeared more confused than anything. A rocket fired by Hamas struck Ashdod's northern outskirts yesterday, around 32 kilometers from the Strip. But talk on the police radio, later corrected, led the media to mistakenly report that rockets had hit near Yavneh and Bat Yam. The education system reflected the same confusion, with the mayors of Ashdod and Be'er Sheva shutting down schools in their cities despite recommendations to the contrary from the Home Front Command.

The question of deploying the anti-rocket Iron Dome system also ran into some questions. The Defense Ministry and IDF decided yesterday to deploy the system in the south as early as Sunday, but a depleted budget means that only two batteries are available. Each can protect a medium-sized city, which puts Netanyahu in a lose-lose political situation. If he decides to protect Be'er Sheva and Ashdod, he'll be accused of neglecting Ashkelon and Sderot, not to mention residents of the kibbutzim around the Strip who have taken rocket fire for years and are fed promises about Iron Dome.

On top of that, some people in the General Staff believe that Iron Dome should be used to protect military airfields, and the IDF generally advised yesterday that we lower our expectations. The two batteries are not yet officially operational and there may be some mistakes when they are first deployed.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017