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Gaza: New rules in an old war

There’s something different about the most recent flare-up between Israel and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians’ modus operandi appears to have changed, and Israel seems to be unsure of how to respond.

In the past month, armed Palestinian groups in Gaza launched a string of three, seemingly well planned and ultimately successful attacks against IDF forces along the border. Planted explosive devices, a massive and unprecedented tunnel detonation and an anti-tank missile left a total of eight Israeli soldiers injured, some seriously.

Already there was something strange. Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, has declared for some time that it was focusing on military targets, a change from its rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers. Nevertheless, to have nearly a month go by without rocket attacks on civilians is almost unheard of in recent years.

The IDF’s responses to the attacks were also uncharacteristically restrained considering the Israeli casualties, limited to immediate defensive fire and late-night airstrikes on empty buildings and tunnels. Following the second two Gaza-born attacks last week, however, the immediate counterattacks introduced a civilian casualty count.

When a massive tunnel detonation left three Israeli soldiers injured, the IDF returned fire “into an open field,” as the IDF Spokesman’s Office later claimed, killing a 13-year-old Palestinian boy. That night, the IDF launched no major retaliatory airstrikes.

The next morning, armed groups in Gaza shot an anti-tank missile at an IDF jeep, injuring four soldiers. Once again, tanks returned fire, killing four civilians and injuring some 30, among them women and children. That night, the IDF launched no major retaliatory airstrikes, although it targeted and killed two alleged terrorists in the morning.

These civilian deaths were an escalating turning point and terrorists, mostly Salafi elements in the Strip, launched over 130 rockets into Israeli civilian centers for the next three days. Some seven Israelis were injured. The IDF, however, continued to limit its retaliation to late-night airstrikes targeting empty buildings and tunnels. There were no more Palestinian casualties.

Meanwhile, Palestinians announced an ambiguously worded cease-fire declaration after a conference between major armed groups in Gaza. It was almost as if injuring seven Israeli civilians had evened the score and accomplished their retaliatory objectives.

Normative calm was restored.

This latest round of violence was different than those in recent months and years. The absence of deadly and overwhelming IDF assassinations and retaliatory strikes draws a stark contrast to previous escalations.

But more important than how this mini-cycle of violence was different, is the question of why?

One scenario is that the Israeli defense establishment failed to notice a strategic paradigm shift on the part of Palestinian groups.

One of Israel’s strongest weapons against Hamas (and other groups in the Gaza Strip) is its ability to label them terrorists, and attacks that deliberately target civilians are almost unquestionably terrorism, or at the very least serious war crimes. A shift by those Gazan groups toward attacking uniformed military personnel would ostensibly deny Israel its most powerful rhetorical weapon.

If there has been a shift, the driving forces behind it are the loss of Syria as safe haven and the rise of a new regime in Egypt; Gaza-based Palestinian groups are scrambling to find new homes. Making life difficult for them, few regimes in the region are fully comfortable with groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Their revolutionary nature and Islamic influence threaten secular monarchies and dictatorships, while the use of terrorism is frowned upon by more democratic regimes like Egypt and Jordan. Both groups would have inevitably come under pressure from the US not to take them in.

Hamas, which recently relocated its political headquarters to Qatar, may have agreed – or decided – to change its armed tactics in order to please its new landlord, specifically, to limit its attacks to Israeli military targets.

If that did in fact happen, Israel failed to take notice. Even worse, it may not know how to react under the new rules of the game. The absence of serious IDF retaliation could very well be an undesired but unavoidable Israeli stalling maneuver to figure out how to respond. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu essentially confirmed the IDF would remain silent on Tuesday, saying: “I am responsible for choosing the right time to exact the highest possible price and so it will be.”

A lead-up to war?

But regardless of the relative calm, members of the Israeli government have recently made public declarations and suggestions that a Cast Lead-style major ground operation is imminent, or at least likely.

Cumulatively, the use of anti-tank missiles, the success of explosives attacks on patrols and the massive tunnel detonation signal an introduction of new military tools to the Palestinian military repertoire. A massive Israeli response would not be surprising.

In the lead-up to previous major offensives, however, Israel fully participated in the violent escalations that made them inevitable. It is unlike the IDF to stand back while rockets fall and attacks are launched, as it has in the past month. That appears to signal Israeli hesitation.

One explanation for the current situation is that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want to head into elections on the heels of a military operation. A ground operation today would likely face fierce objections and near-universal international condemnation on a scale much larger than Cast Lead. After Netanyahu seemingly bet on the wrong horse in the US elections, it is possible he is wary of further isolating Israel in the international community, and especially further distancing Israel from the Obama White House. The prime minister needs Obama for his trademark Iranian campaign, and a casualty count even remotely close to that of Cast Lead could drive an even larger wedge between the two leaders.

Secondly, a botched military operation, or one that fails to accomplish its objectives, could cripple Netanyahu’s image as the strong-on-security candidate in an election, which under the right circumstances could easily become contestable. Additionally, opening a southern front as the Syrian border is heating up could be disastrous.

Yet another possibility, raised by a number of political commentators is that Netanyahu simply lacks the resolve to order and oversee a major military operation, something which he has never done in either of his two terms as prime minister.

Lastly, it’s possible the Netanyahu government is facing intense pressure not to launch a major operation in Gaza from the United States, Europe, Egypt or even Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. All of those parties, particularly Abbas, have an interest in preventing war.

Whatever the reasons, Israelis and Palestinians have once again been left with no peace and no war, but something is different. The status quo survived another day, but there may be a whole new game in Gaza.

The only question is: what is it?

Follow Michael Omer-Man on Twitter: @MikeOmerMan

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