Tel Aviv — As breathless television anchors and news reporters promised a “dramatic” televised announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, rattled Israelis glanced upward to the sky for menacing rockets and began checking their bomb shelters.
For the entire day, Israeli news outlets had been playing footage of a huge fireball in the night sky over Syria — the result of an apparent attack on a Syrian missile storehouse. With Israeli and foreign experts pointing their fingers at Israel as the party most likely responsible for the attack, to some it seemed as if Netanyahu was about to declare war.
In the end, the Monday announcement — that Israel had secreted out of Iran a cache of documents suggesting it had lied about its nuclear program — was less consequential than billed, but it came amid tension on a second Israeli front.
Just a few days earlier, three Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in another week of protests at the Gaza border. This time, demonstrators began trying to penetrate the fence. Larger numbers are expected in two weeks’ time when a march is planned to coincide with the Palestinian observance of the “Nakba,” or the “disaster” of displacement at the time of Israel’s independence.
Though Gaza and Syria represent two separate situations, might Israel be headed toward a two-front conflict? Is there a possibility it could get caught in an overlapping cycle of escalation? Indeed, the incendiary situation could be further enhanced by a decision by President Donald Trump to pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, according to one think tank.
“Israel may face three areas of confrontation with its enemies, maybe more; it has explosive potential,” said Amos Yadlin, the director of the Institute for National Security Studies and a former IDF military intelligence chief in a briefing call with reporters. “I will not be surprised if one or more than one area will escalate.”
The attack in Syria, which occurred Sunday night, reportedly targeted a storage facility that housed some surface-to-surface missiles. The power of the explosion of the ammunition registered on seismographs as far away as Europe.
Israel hasn’t commented on the attack, but most experts assume that only the U.S. had the ability to carry such a strike. Earlier in April, Israel was again suspected in an attack that targeted an air base in Syria being built by the Iranians, prompting a vow from Tehran to hit back. In both attacks, Iranians were killed, bolstering expectations in Israel that it is only a matter of time until a retaliatory strike by Tehran.
Yadlin suggested that pre-empting the Iranian military build-up in Syria now and risking retaliation is preferable to allowing Tehran to establish a military infrastructure in Syria and facing a much more serious conflict later.
A revenge strike could come via a ballistic missile attack from Tehran, Syria, or Lebanon; at the Israel-Syrian border in the Golan Heights; or, against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. Some analysts suggested Israel might have targeted weapons in Syria this week that Iran was planning to use in the near term.
“Israel’s strategy is to pre-emptively strike at [Iran’s] military build-up to send a deterrent message to Iran, and to send body bags home — something Iranian public opinion is sensitive to,” said Yossi Alpher, a former intelligence official and a former prime ministerial adviser.
Might Iran be hoping that Hamas would join in and escalate the clashes at the border with Israel? After all, Hamas receives limited military support from Iran and leaders of the two organizations have held talks in Iran. Both entities are ideologically opposed to the Jewish state.
But many observers say that the prospects for a double escalation are actually low. Despite their alliance, Iran and Hamas have separate cost-benefit calculations, said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Hamas’ strategy of confrontation has been to focus on rioting and attacks on the border fence. The extremist Islamic rulers of Gaza haven’t fired a missile during a month of conflict. So far, that’s helped put Gaza back on the international agenda and focused pressure on Israel over the dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries.
Gaza is a “contained” conflict so far because Hamas doesn’t seek a wider conflict, said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. “[Hamas] is testing a new method: a combination of violent activities on a large scale, with local terror attacks. They seem to be relatively satisfied with the way it’s going. They aren’t paying a high price.”
In Gaza, the IDF is trying to maneuver between limiting the number of casualties during the demonstrations and trying to deter Hamas from fanning new attacks on the fence, Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel wrote this week. The protests up until now have been scarcely a “dress rehearsal” of what could occur during the Nakba observance, Harel wrote, and many experts expressed concern that the demonstrations could be fanned by the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem later this month.
If Israel did happen to find itself in the middle of a two-front conflict with Iran and Hamas, other regional Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia — a sworn enemy of Tehran — would likely quietly side with Israel. Indeed, Netanyahu’s prime-time appearance Monday revealing documents from Iran’s nuclear program got front-page coverage in a Saudi-linked English-language newspaper.
Many questioned the wisdom of the prime minister’s performance for having sown panic, potentially revealing Israeli intelligence agents and providing no real information on Iran’s current nuclear activities. Alpher, however, said the presentation on Monday night and the attack on the ammunition depot Sunday added up to a “healthy” message of deterrence.
“The message overall is that Israel has thoroughly penetrated the Iranian security establishment both in Syria and Tehran. That’s a good message,” he said. “It sends a deterrent message that ‘you can’t surprise us’ [with an attack]. You better take another look at yourself.”