Fighting along the Israeli-Gaza border that has killed at least 11 people continued Thursday for the sixth-straight day, despite parallel pledges by Israel and Hamas to restore calm amid the worst violence since the 2009 Gaza war.
Israeli aircraft on Thursday fired on low-profile targets such as border smuggling tunnels, while Gaza militants launched mortars and homemade rockets into southern Israel. One rocket even struck within 16 miles of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
Still, with both governments facing wary populaces, it appears unlikely for now that the violence will quickly escalate into a full-blown war. Gazans still blame Hamas for escalating the deadly war two years ago. And Israeli officials – despite absorbing a week of rocket attacks and yesterday's Jerusalem bombing that killed one person and injured 30 – find the idea of a broad offensive unappealing at a time when the peace process is moribund and the region is awash in protests.
"The whole Middle East is topsy turvy, and nothing is clear," says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US. "Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with the unrest that goes all the way from Morocco to Afghanistan, it would not be an advisable step for Israel to give in to the provocations of factors like the Islamic jihad, which would very much want to put Israel in the center."
The pressure is on
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel must act prudently and responsibly to preserve a calm that has been a "blessing" for Israelis. Still, the pressure is still on him.
"The idea of attrition isn’t acceptable to me," Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said, commenting on the rockets out of Gaza on Thursday. "We need to respond aggressively and hit infrastructure."
But without major casualties from the rocket attacks, Israel may have a hard time drumming up diplomatic support for a major push into Gaza.
"I don’t think Israel is isolated, but a war could speed up the process of isolation," says Gershon Baskin, the codirector of the Jerusalem-based Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. "The world won’t be so happy of another Cast Lead going on in Gaza," he said referring to the operation nickname of the Gaza War.
Israel is also facing increasing pressure from the international community to advance the peace process and stave off a diplomatic confrontation over Palestinian efforts to seek international recognition of a state on the 1967 borders.
"There is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a press conference today in Tel Aviv with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
On the Palestinian side, Hamas has also released statements suggesting it was interested in ending nearly a week of escalation. Late Wednesday, Hamas released a statement pledging "to restore calm" in Gaza Strip.
Palestinians believe that Hamas militants instigated the flare-up over the weekend to undermine prospects for an upcoming visit to Gaza by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a unified Palestinian government with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah. That said, Hamas must be wary of still fresh public memory of the three-week war in which some 1,400 Gazans were killed, including hundreds of noncombatants. At least 10 Palestinians have died in the past six days of fighting.
Though Palestinians blame Israel for the civilian deaths, the war exposed Hamas as outmatched by the Israeli army and unable to defend Gaza. For the past two years, Hamas has enforced an unwritten cease-fire on other militant groups as Gazans recovered. And even though the group has been stockpiling weapons, according to Israel, Gazans’ are still scarred by the last round.