Will Israel Invade Gaza?

Tough pros and cons for Jerusalem.

On Saturday the Israeli air force hit an Islamic Jihad squad in Gaza that was preparing to fire a rocket into Israel. The leader of the squad was killed, the other three members wounded.

Soon after, on Saturday night, two retaliatory rockets were fired from Gaza, one of them causing shrapnel wounds to a foreign worker.

In other words, Gaza has Israel covered. The Israeli air force generally carries out successful pinpoint strikes, but Gaza can always exact a price. Even when its projectiles cause no physical damage to people or property, they make sure the residents of southern Israel don’t know a moment’s security.

The pattern was similar in the previous round. Islamic Jihad opened it with a Grad rocket on Wednesday, October 26. Three days later Israel wiped out a five-man cell in Gaza. Islamic Jihad responded with about 40 rockets and mortars that killed one civilian, wounded nine, and damaged property. Israel hit back effectively until the rockets and mortars stopped. But Israelis don’t regard this as a “victory” or a reasonable way to live.

And over the weekend there was an alarming report that “in response to a heightened threat of anti-aircraft weaponry from Gaza and Egypt, the IAF has ordered its planes to temporarily avoid flying over Israel’s southern border.” It’s believed that terrorist groups in the area have “newly procured anti-aircraft weapons from Libya [that were] smuggled into the Gaza Strip and the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula….”

Not surprisingly, so long as Israel makes no decisive move in Gaza, the strategic threat only grows. Smuggling has been a free-for-all since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Gaza’s rockets can now reach the Tel Aviv area while ever more sophisticated and dangerous weaponry flows in from Libya (another “Arab spring” liability), Iran, and elsewhere.

Also not surprisingly, in this situation, voices in Israel are calling to reoccupy Gaza and put an end to the threat. While some of these come from outside the government, an official in the upper echelon, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, has spoken openly of “toppling Hamas from power and reestablishing control over the southern Strip” where the smuggled weapons enter. Hamas being, of course, the ruler of Gaza, Islamic Jihad a still-weaker rival.

So what’s Israel waiting for?

As usual, though the issue may seem simple, it’s not. Israel’s helmsmen have to take account of larger regional realities and possible repercussions, a mix of pros and cons.

Some of the cons of reinvading Gaza:

* Plausible rumors have been flying that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have decided to attack Iran’s nuclear program within a year or so. If true, they may want to save political capital for such a move—certain to be unpopular in the world, at least at first—and not squander it on an embroilment in Gaza. Israel’s fellow democracies—let alone the Islamic bloc and its allies—never look kindly upon Israeli military moves, demanding quick ceasefires and “restraint on both sides.” If Jerusalem is contemplating action against Iranian nukes, it may prefer to the let the smaller problem of Gaza fester.

* It’s frequently reported that Jerusalem is reluctant to launch a campaign in Gaza for fear of jeopardizing what’s left of relations with post-Mubarak Egypt. If the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is hanging by a thread, it’s said that a Gaza offensive could finally sever the thread—or ignite a firestorm of sentiment among the Egyptian masses that would only further strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical elements.

* Dore Gold points out that the real force behind the recent rocket fire is not Islamic Jihad but its sponsor, Iran. The latter’s “priority is to save Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria,” and TV images “of Israeli-Palestinian exchanges of fire provide a useful distraction” and “might force the Arab League to reengage with the Palestinian issue, instead of pressuring Assad to make the reforms they are demanding.” In other words, by entering Gaza, Israel could be playing into Iran’s hands and helping it rescue its ally Assad. Paradoxically, though, Assad could be preferable for Israel to a radical Sunni regime that might replace him—only adding to the complexity.

And as for some pros:

* Again, if Israel is indeed gearing up to strike Iran, that would likely ignite a multifront war involving Gaza and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon (and possibly Syria as well). Reoccupying Gaza, then, whatever the political, economic, and other possible costs entailed, would have the advantage of removing a potential front in such a war.

* Likewise regarding Egypt, the argument can run in both directions: if Muslim Brotherhood-driven radicalization is in any case around the corner, it would be safer to invade Gaza now, before the danger of Egypt joining the fray grows.

* Israel clearly cannot indefinitely tolerate a terror-statelet abutting its south, and the longer it waits to tackle the problem, the stronger the statelet grows and the higher the costs of an engagement.

That list does not claim to be exhaustive, and one has to take into account that Jerusalem is privy to intelligence. Still, based on the list, the “pros” seem to have it. Indeed, Egypt has reportedly warned the Gaza terrorist groups to hold their fire because Israel is very close to invading.

Time will tell.

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