10/17/18 Are we Close to War
Yesterday, if someone asked what the main topic of conversation in Israel on Wednesday would be, the most likely answer would have been either: a) fallout from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intemperate response to a supporter yesterday, after she asked a question the PM did not like (Netanyahu dismissively snapped, “You are not interesting”) or perhaps, b) reactions to Lara Alqasem’s appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the government’s decision to refuse her entry into Israel.
Instead, Israelis awoke this morning to the question of whether another war with Gaza was imminent. Last night, as most of the country slept, alarms went off in Beersheba. Luckily, the warnings thankfully woke a mother who took the sirens seriously. She rushed upstairs to her three sleeping children, grabbed them, rushed into the secure room — built in every new house and apartment and closed the door. One moment later, a missile fired from Gaza hit the upstairs of her home, obliterating the room her children had slept in quietly, just a minute earlier.
If not for the quick actions of the mother, whatever questions continue to loom regarding whether Israel or Hamas want another war would be mute, that war would have been started. It should be noted that the rocket fired at Beersheva, which carried a larger explosive warhead than past missiles, was not the only rocket shot last night. A second missile was launched in the direction of Tel Aviv, but landed harmlessly in the sea, off the coast.
Even though the aforementioned children were saved by the swift actions of their mother, the sense both on the street and among political analysts is that now, a war is more likely than not. After exchanging ‘good morning’ greetings, the first thing my local barista said today was “looks like we’re heading for war after all”. A recently retired military officer lamented this morning that the proper military response to last night’s attack was to do nothing, but that the chances of that happening were zero, because the political pressure will be too high.
Yesterday’s rocket fire follows a number of days of increasing tension along the border. The border fence has been attacked repeatedly in the last few days, including crossing of the border by many Palestinians, poised to attack nearby army installations. These infiltrators were effectively on a suicide mission, with no realistic chance of success. All were either killed or wounded. While these types of incursions have gone on for the past few weeks, the recent attack was the boldest and potentially the most dangerous for Israeli soldiers. All of these offensives has been taking place against the backdrop of continued balloon arson attacks, which according to the head of the Jewish National Fund, (responsible for maintenance of Israel’s forests), have destroyed half of the forest area around the Gaza Strip.
However, all of these events need to be viewed in their broader context. For the past few months Israel, Egypt, and Hamas have been engaged in direct negotiations to bring about a long-term ceasefire, in return for a dramatic easing of restrictions on Gaza. Those negotiations have not succeeded to date — both because the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah continues to oppose the agreement, and due to Hamas’ unwillingness to turn over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and release two Israeli civilians they are holding at a price to which Israel is willing to agree. Without the soldiers’ remains, it will be nearly impossible politically for the Israeli government to consent to any long-term arrangement.
In the meantime, (with elections on the horizon) Israeli politicians have been raising the rhetoric. Education Minister Naftali Bennett from the religious right-wing HaBayit Hayehudi party has been attacking Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman from right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, who in turn has been publicly calling for the army — which he theoretically commands — to take “strong action” against Hamas, in response to all of the border incidents.
Despite the big talk, the Israeli military and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who ultimately make the decisions, have been very reluctant to take action that will lead to an all-out war; a war Israel will win militarily, but many ask — what then? Nevertheless, Netanyahu is under increasing political pressure to do something dramatic to show Israel has regained the initiative.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad both condemned last night’s attack, stating they were not responsible. The Israeli army initially responded saying that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are the only ones with large missiles like the one that struck Beersheva this morning. Although later in the day the army stated they believed the rockets were fired by a splinter group supported by Iran.
Hamas knows that if war ensues the toll on Gazan civilians will be high and it could end up losing power. So, in theory, it is in no one's interest to start a war — with the exception of Iran.
At least, that is what observers keep saying — and maybe they are right. Though that is what observers in Europe stated just before World War I broke out. Most wars do not start because rational people decide to battle. Wars usually begin because rational and sometimes irrational people miscalculate. After this morning’s rocket attack, the chance of a miscalculation happening has increased dramatically. Moreover, if Iran plays the role of mischief-maker, then the potential consequences are hard to calculate.