Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The scary and frightening images which have been appearing on the screen and the prospects of more significant casualties as a result of Operation Pillar of Defense were eerily reminiscent of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 and the 2006 War with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Innocent victims on both sides appeared as the consequence of Israel’s decision that it needed to once again demonstrate to the world—as well as to its own citizens—that Hamas had to be forced to cease the indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel.
What is Hamas’ goal in continuing the bombing of Israel? Everyone knew that Hamas had more and better rockets and missiles than four years ago, but why escalate the attacks now? The leaders knew that at a certain point Israel would respond with force. Everyone also knew that Hamas was escalating its tension with the Palestinians on the West Bank and President Mahmoud Abbas in particular, as it continues to compete for leadership of the Palestinian people.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu made the clever tactical decision to wait until after the U.S. elections, send over the head of the IAF—presumably to personally inform–not to ask–the Pentagon, and then to time the attack after his return. The unclear question was why the Israelis specifically decided at this moment to take out Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing knowing that it would necessitate a more serious, protracted response from Hamas?
Within the Israeli defense establishment the pressure had undoubtedly been building to respond to the escalating Hamas shelling into southern Israel. Bibi clearly was unperturbed about initiating some action during the run-up to his own January election. He knew that the Israeli military and intelligence had collected extensive information about missile and rocket launch sites. His assessment suggested that the IAF could inflict extensive damage quickly and avoid much of the collateral damage which caused Prime Minister Olmert so much trouble, domestically as well as internationally. Finally, he expected that he could complete the mission without needing to introduce ground forces, which would dramatically escalate and extend the confrontation plus incur an extensive negative response. So far Bibi’s actions and conduct are gaining him about as much support as he could have expected.
Internationally to date the response has been strongly supportive of the Israeli action. President Obama has repeatedly indicated his full support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens from the constant attacks. What is far more intriguing is that Israel received virtual immediate support from the British Government and that the Foreign Minister was out front backing Israel right to eliminate the constant shelling. It is not clear that Israel will receive a positive response to a ground invasion of Gaza which will escalates the casualty numbers.
The key seems to be President Morsi. He is much receiving enormous pressure from all sides, especially internally from the rivalry between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood which will blow pro and con respectively on a ceasefire. Similarly, the U.S. is undoubtedly holding future aid over the Egyptians head to push the ceasefire on Hamas. What is not yet clear is how much of a role the Arab League and the Gulf States are playing in pressuring Hamas.
Finally there is the unknown factor of Iran and especially its more militant religious and military elements. As the major supplier of military supplies to Hamas, the Iranians have benefitted greatly by using Hamas as the test agent for how well Israel, conceivably, could defend itself from an attack from Iran and how successful the Iron Dome works. Having now received some test results, will Iran push for a more intensive war at this time or walk away with whatever they gleaned from the confrontation.
What remains to be seen in the next 24 hours is whether there can be a ceasefire negotiated by the U.S., the U.N., the Arab League, and, most importantly, Egypt. Then some of the unknown question will begin to be answered or the region will be thrust into another war. If they fail and Israel then opts to re-enter Gaza on the ground to eliminate the rocket operation, the relatively low level of casualties seen so far will undoubtedly change, as will Israel’s support in some circles.