For both Hamas and Israel, there are reasons to escalate

For Hamas, a fear that capitulation will hurt their standing more than defiance. For Israel, it's a question of making good on public threats.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire after an Israeli air strike on the building of Hamas's Ministry of Interior in Gaza City, Nov. 16.

Israel and Palestinian militants in the besieged Gaza Strip are veering dangerously close to getting locked into a cycle of retaliation and revenge that could run for weeks.

Though many are wondering why both sides don't simply stand down now to avoid further loss of innocent life (since, after all, it's fairly clear that a major shift in the status quo will be the outcome of the bombardments that are now in their third day), the grim logic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is convincing men on both sides that more death is what's needed now to secure their own interests.

For Hamas, the Islamist militant group and political party that has governed Gaza separately from the West Bank based Palestinian Authority since 2007,the pressure comes in weighing its reputation of resistance and endurance against the mounting human cost to civilians. Standing down completely, capitulation, would look weak to many of its supporters, perhaps opening a door for other militant groups in the Gaza Strip, like Islamic Jihad, to accrue more power for themselves.

For Israel, the costs in life to its own side are lighter than for its much weaker foe, but still serious enough. Three Israeli civilians died when a rocket hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel on Thursday morning. (See the Monitor's report from Kiryat Malachi Thursday.) Meanwhile, 19 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli mortar and air strikes, the balance of them civilians, since the war began on Wednesday.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have in some ways locked themselves into a broader conflict, based on the public logic they have provided in the past few days: Rockets from Gaza are intolerable, and force must be used to stop them. Since there have now been 500 or so rockets fired at Israel since the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmad Jabari on Wednesday, compared with 723 in total fired in the first 10 months of the year, that logic of escalation of force calls for yet more escalation. 

Further, Hamas fired long-range Fajr rockets, known to be in their arsenal but never used before, in response to Israeli's bombing raids yesterday. Those longer-range rockets struck within eight miles of Tel Aviv, Israel's business and cultural capital,  and both yesterday and today, air raid sirens wailed throughout the coastal Mediterranean city for the first time since 1991, when Iraq's Saddam Hussein lobbed scud missiles at Israel during Gulf War precipitated by his invasion of Kuwait. And in the late afternoon, the first air raid sirens in memory were reported to be going off in Jerusalem.

Hamas being able to threaten Tel Aviv from the air is, as they say, a game-changer. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area is home to about 40 percent of Israel's 7.7 million people, and its cafes and beach life have long provided a comfortable cocoon, far from conflicts over Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the threats of Hamas in Gaza.  

The residents of southern Israel, near Gaza, have long lived with the terror of rocket attacks, and in many ways have grown used to it. The residents of teeming Gaza, hemmed in by both Israel and Egypt, are likewise used to the terror of far more powerful Israeli bombs that rain down on towns and cities in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.

Where the red line lies

But a permanent extension of that envelope of fear to Tel Aviv, which attracts foreign investment to its high tech industries, would be intolerable for Israel. It could have an impact on both investment in the country and on the immigration of Jews to Israel, who are often urged to make aliyah (return) to the Jewish state under the argument that it's the only place where Jews can be truly safe.

That's why 16,000 Israeli army reservists were called up this morning. If more long-range rockets strike deep into the center of Israel, the argument for a ground incursion will grow stronger for Netanyahu. The IDF says most of the 300 bombs it has fired into Gaza have targeted long-range launching sites and warehouses for the Iranian made Fajr rockets. But has it got most of them? Or just a few?

The costs of escalation are also clear, beyond the casualties. The last Israeli war with Gaza was in 2008, then as now within weeks of the election of President Obama. The war, which Israel called Operation Cast Lead, claimed 13 Israeli lives and more than 1,200 Palestinian lives. Yes, Israel now has the Iron Dome defense system, which has shut down about 100 Israeli rockets so far at a cost of $40,000 a pop (the least expensive of the Palestinian rockets cost about $500). But all missile defense systems are prone to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers, if the opponent has sufficient supply. 

Damage to international image

While Israeli's political support from the US remains staunch -- the Obama administration has placed responsibility for the outbreak squarely on Hamas's shoulders and repeatedly said that Israel has the right to defend itself -- the enormous imbalance in casualty rates when Israel fights Palestinians always does damage to the country's international image, which in the long term can extract a political toll.

And the region is a far different place than it was in 2008, when Hosni Mubarak led Egypt and could be counted on to quietly back Israel against Hamas. Now, Egypt is led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Hamas was originally an offshoot of the Brotherhood, and they are ideological kindred spirits. Today, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil briefly entered Gaza at the Rafah border, an unprecedented visit at a time of conflict. He toured Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and met with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

"We are all behind you, the struggling nation, the heroic that is presenting its children as heroes every day," Mr. Qandil said at the panicked hospital, filled with casualties. The LA Times reported that an emotional Qandil held up a blood-stained sleeve, saying it came from one of the wounded, as Haniyah said ""That's Palestinian blood on Egyptian hands."

This is not to say that Egypt is going to break its longstanding peace agreement with Israel or get directly involved in the conflict. But the Morsi government will be under pressure not to be as reliable a guardian of its Sinai border with Gaza as Mr. Mubarak was after this latest outbreak of hostility. That border is, after all, where much of the weapon and financial resupply of Gaza passes through. Mr. Morsi warned today that Israel should stop offensive operations now or "it won't be able to stand up to" Egypt's anger.

And there were already signs that Gaza was better armed and prepared this time around than in 2008. Then, about 600 missiles were fired at Israeli during three weeks of fighting before a truce was called. So far, 500 missiles have been fired in three days, 80 percent of the total four years ago.

To be sure, peace could still break out. Perhaps the Egyptians, or the Turks, can convince Hamas that their point has been made. Perhaps the US can convince Israel of the same.

But why the logic of peace seems obvious to outsiders, combatants run along different logic. This crisis will run for days yet.

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