As sirens blare, Israel seeks to punish Hamas without occupying Gaza

The Israel-Hamas war that began Wednesday was on the brink of a major escalation, with Palestinian rockets nearing Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Can Israel achieve its objectives?

Majed Hamdan/AP
Smoke rises following an Israeli attack in Gaza City, Friday. Despite its attacks on militants in Gaza, Israel is loathe to topple its foe and permanently reoccupy territory beyond its border.

The three-day war between Hamas and Israel seemed on the cusp of a major escalation Friday afternoon despite hopes the visit of Egypt’s prime minister to Gaza would inspire calm. Sirens warning of an incoming missile rang through the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, a rocket from Gaza reportedly struck outside Jerusalem, and Israel called up thousands of reservists for a potential ground invasion.

The scene of Israelis in Tel Aviv running for cover is a symbolic milestone for Palestinian Islamic militants, marking the first time Palestinian rocket fire has reached the Israeli heartland. But placing the city under attack also raises the likelihood that Israeli leaders will decide to dramatically widen their offensive in a way that threatens Hamas’ rule.

"Hitting Tel Aviv is definitely a major blow. This makes the difference between a regular terrorist group and a semi-military machine. They have crossed a certain line,’’ says Meir Elram, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. "To cause us severe losses in Tel Aviv will cause a major shift in our reserved policy. If Israel is being dragged out if its rational posture, Hamas has a lot to lose.’’

Mr. Elran adds Israel has had some significant achievements of its own: significant destruction of Hamas’ weapons caches and the killing of its top military leader while limiting the civilian deaths in Gaza that can erode Israel’s international standing. The IDF says Israel’s Iron Dome missile interceptors have shot down some 100 missiles with an 80 percent success rate, limiting casualties to Israeli civilians.

Until this point, Israel has set a limited goal of punishing Hamas and strengthening its ability to deter future attacks, as opposed to a maximalist target of toppling Hamas. Just like in its 2006 war against Hezbollah and the 2008-2009 war with Hamas, Israel is loathe to topple its foe and permanently reoccupy territory beyond its border.

On top of that, reoccupation could ratchet up domestic pressure on Egypt’s new Islamist government to break ties with Israel and imperil the peace treaty. In a visit to Gaza on Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil declared solidarity with Gaza, saying "we are all behind you, the struggling nation.''

"Returning to a situation of controlling one and a half million Palestinians (in addition to those in the West Bank) would be a severe strategic mistake,’’ wrote Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence and now the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Seeking deterrence

But fighting to achieve deterrence is a nebulous goal without clear indicators of success.

Though the first Gaza war ended with a cease-fire with Israel holding the upper hand military, eventually those gains were eroded by international criticism of the civilian toll in Gaza. Within a year, Israel’s deterrence began eroding as militant groups resumed cross-border attacks that were tolerated by the Israeli government.

The 2006 war with Hezbollah ended in a draw and a symbolic victory for the Shiite militants, but the cease-fire has endured for six years despite a Hezbollah weapons build up.

"It is ironic and not easy to explain,’’ says Yossi Alpher, a past adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

To achieve long-term deterrence, Israel might focus on destroying Hamas strategic assets like weapons smuggling tunnels, though that would require a ground invasion. Others suggest that Israel should focus on hunting Hamas’ leadership – both political and military leaders – and forcing them underground as the country did with Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah is deterred in large part because [Sheikh Hassan] Nassralah fears an Israeli strike, and spends most of his time in hiding," says Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University. "This projects weakness – Israel will seek a similar situation with Hamas.’’

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