Palestinian rockets are terrorizing Israeli towns. Israeli jets are pummeling the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Israeli reservists have been called up for a possible ground invasion. Twenty-one Palestinians, among them small children, and three Israelis are dead, and the toll is sure to rise. Four years after the Israeli military unleashed a punishing attack on Gaza, Israel and Hamas are once again on the brink of war.
The fresh round of Israeli reprisals follows an uptick in attacks from militant groups in Gaza. It began last Saturday with the firing of an anti-tank missile at an Israeli army jeep that wounded four soldiers. Several days of intensive rocket fire from Gaza followed. Israel responded by assassinating Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, and launched an air campaign to try to destroy as many weapons depots as possible.
In 2012, there’s barely been a week when at least a handful of rockets haven’t been fired from Gaza into Israel. Every month or so there is an escalation, like during one six-day period in June when 162 rockets landed in Israel. “No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the foreign media on Thursday as he authorized more intensive strikes in Gaza.
Netanyahu is surely right. Israel’s response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn’t the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it.
To try to contain the threat, Israel has relied largely on periodic air strikes on weapons storage facilities and targeted assassinations of militants, which sometimes result in civilian casualties that radicalize the Palestinian population. It bombs the smuggling tunnels that run underground between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and are used to smuggle in civilian goods and weapons. The tunnels exist because of the strict blockade Israel enforces around the territory, choking off anything like normal commerce.
In four years, Israel’s playbook hasn’t changed. Nor did the Palestinian rockets ever truly end. But in the intervening years the world has changed. Most significantly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who could ignore anti-Israel sentiment in his country, is gone. His successor, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, may have more sway with Hamas, but he also has less power to resist Egyptian calls to sever ties with Israel.
Israel’s problems aren’t limited to its southern flank. The civil war in Syria is threatening to engulf Israel. Thousands of Jordanians are in the streets demanding King Abdullah’s ouster. Relations with Turkey remain frayed.
Israel is growing ever more isolated just as its regional position becomes more insecure.
About 1,400 rockets have been fired at Israeli towns since the end of its last full-scale military action in Gaza in January 2009.* The Israeli blockade of Gaza failed to prevent the smuggling of longer-range rockets that can now reach Tel Aviv. Hamas is still in power and has more international legitimacy than ever. The emir of Qatar became the first head of state to visit Gaza last month since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, still furious over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turks on a flotilla filled with pro-Palestinian activists in 2010, is making plans to travel there. A senior Egyptian delegation visited Friday in a show of support.
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