Helmi Moussa
As-Safir (Opinion)
October 11, 2012 - 12:00am

High-level Israeli military circles warned that the only way to avoid escalation in the Gaza Strip may be through the implementation of a ground operation.

The threats came following a night of heated confrontations, during which settlements in the so-called "Gaza envelope" [the area of Israel abutting the Gaza Strip] were subject to a number of rocket attacks whose number, accuracy and source surprised the Israeli leadership.

For Hamas, conditions are seemingly ripe for changing the rules of the game with which Israel is familiar.

It is important to note here that the rules of the game that were adopted in the past few months, especially after a round of escalation that was led by Islamic Jihad, required Israel not to initiate operations in the Gaza Strip in order to avoid any kind of reaction.

For more reasons than one, including changes in the Egyptian situation, one can say that Israel preferred to keep these rules, even if temporarily.

But during the past few months, Salafist jihadist elements have joined the confrontation. They have shown willingness to challenge Egypt, Israel and even Hamas’ rule to a certain extent. Differences between Hamas and these elements intensified after their operations in Sinai almost threatened to cause a strategic rift between Hamas and the Gaza Strip on the one hand, and Egypt on the other.

During this period, Israel took action against members of these Salafist jihadist groups in a way that did not seriously provoke Hamas or the overall situation in the Gaza Strip.

As Israeli operations attacked Salafist jihadist groups in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army was feeling the pulse of other powers, be it by deliberately targeting some of their positions or due to an incorrect diagnosis, especially in the common areas of friction.

Practically, the Hamas movement has found itself in a dilemma of sorts, which resulted from Israel’s ongoing escalation in the Gaza Strip on one hand, and from being accused by Salafist groups of making a truce with the [Israeli] occupation forces on the other.

The state of alertness within the movement, which has been probably generated from the changes in the Arab countries and the worsening economic crisis in the Gaza Strip, pushed Hamas to change the rules of action that were in force. Thus, we witnessed a sort of common reaction by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group that has surprised Israel in the past two days.

The military correspondent of Maariv newspaper said that the exchange of fire between the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades — Hamas’ armed wing — and the Islamic Jihad al-Quds Brigades (or Saraya al-Quds) “is a rare incident in itself, that drew more attention than the response.”

The military correspondent pointed out that, given the deterioration of ties between the two factions in the past years — after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip — the declaration that they are achieving “the highest levels of coordination to manage their confrontation” with Israel is surprising.

This probably incited Israeli commanders to threaten to launch a large operation in Gaza that would be similar to Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Israeli newspapers said that these commanders estimate that the potential Israeli response to the latest “Palestinian escalation” would be a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, as chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ general staff Benny Gantz predicted when he took office.

However, military estimations are one thing and political estimations are another.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is close to announcing that preliminary elections will be held — is concerned with setting a security and military agenda at the expense of a socioeconomic one.

However, general calculations indicate that there are risks, which are not represented by the physical damages that Israel will bear as a result of its confrontation with the resistance in Gaza or by the moral damages that would be caused by the humanitarian losses in Gaza, but rather by the political damages in particular.

Netanyahu’s government feels that its most significant achievement is to keep the Palestinian issue away from any regional and international confrontation. Moreover, the Israeli government feels that regional changes, particularly in Egypt, require Israel to take into account the consequences of any military action in the Gaza Strip, to which [Israeli newspaper] Yediot Aharonot military commentator Ron Ben Yishai referred.

Ben Yishai explained that an exchange of blows between Israeli and Palestinian factions reflected a coordinated series of strikes and counter-strikes, according to the rules of a new game. He wrote that these rules are governed by Egyptian considerations at both Palestinian and Israeli levels and aim to avoid escalation.

Ben Yishai noted that the Palestinian and Israeli sides were cautious in their confrontation and avoided using force. Israel is concerned with preserving the peace treaty with Egypt and Hamas is concerned with preventing the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt from entering into any uneven confrontation.

It can be said that Hamas is returning to the principle that once governed relations between Egypt and the Palestinian resistance in the early 1960s. It is returning in a different way that takes new conditions into consideration. This is the “above zero and below involvement” principle.

However, this principle was a military principle and devoid of any political dimension in the past, because politics were not in the hands of the Palestinians. How will this principle be rectified given the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah doesn’t see itself outside of politics and exclusive political action?



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