The Hamas-IDF contest spiraled to its highest level in three frantic hours Saturday night, July 12: Hamas hurled 10 rockets at the broader Tel Aviv area, after one-hour’s notice, and for the first time targeted the Modiin-Maccabim-Reut cluster of central Israel. The Israeli air force reacted with a heavy carpet bombardment the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip.
This aimed at achieving two military targets:
1. The “suppression of enemy forces” capable of disrupting an Israeli ground invasion if and when Prime Minister Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu approves this operation in the coming hours.
2. To pin the bulk of Hamas chiefs and forces operating out of bunkers underground and afraid of coming out to fight. This also applies to the large stocks of rocket launchers held below ground.
An Israeli military official told DEBKAfile that the army had notified the Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza to evacuate their homes for their own safety, as the area would be hit with great force in the next 24 hours. This area served as the launching pad of the rocket blitz against Tel Aviv.
The official noted that Israel had in the Lebanon war employed the tactic of warning civilians in embattled areas to evacuate, so as to reduce collateral harm. This tactic was now being applied to the Gaza Strip for the first time.
In fact, DEBKAfile reported on Thursday, July 10 that IDF notices were sent to 100,000 residents of the northern Gaza towns of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun, Greater Ibsen and Smaller Ibsen, advising them to leave their homes and make for the beach or the south. At that time, the prime minister had not yet decided to order an IDF ground incursion of Gaza.
The repetition of this message to northern Gazans, and the heavy Israel Air Force bombardment Saturday night, strongly indicated that a decision to send the IDF into the Hamas enclave for ground assaults on pinpointed targets at predetermined locations.
Northern Israel was also attacked for the second time in two days with rocket fire from Lebanon. Sirens alerted Nahariya, Rosh Hanikra and Shlomi to the launching of three rockets from the al Qlalayleh Plain south of the coastal Lebanese town of Tyre.
DEBKAfile reported earlier Saturday that for five days, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had opted to confront Hamas rockets with Israel’s air force alone, without the IDF at large. They were not even willing to approve a small-scale raid by special forces for pinpointing a few key targets.
The Hamas blitz on Tel Aviv and subsequent celebration in Gaza Saturday night appear to have convinced Israel’s prime minister that without greater force by the IDF, Hamas would never stop shooting rockets.
Early Saturday, July 12, saw a few hours respite from Palestinian rocket fire before the first sirens starting wailing again in the western Negev and central Israel. The rockets fired during this week came in an ever widening arc. Israel air strikes wrought heavy surface damage to the Gaza Strip, but scarcely scratched its rocket capabilities.
Friday night, air strikes hit 60 Palestinian targets, mostly buried missile launchers and arms stores, one cached in the Nuseirat mosque, which was razed except for the minaret, and others in a school and three multistory buildings. Before they were bombed, civilians were warned to get out of harm’s way.
The IDF spokesman reported 10 “terrorists” killed, including rocket team leaders. The Palestinians report their total death toll had climbed to 121 and 900 injured.
Israel reported 750 Palestinian rockets launched in five days, with no fatalities, and 82 people injured, many of them suffering the effects of shock.
Five days after Operation Protective Edge was launched to terminate the Hams rocket offensive, it was beginning to be blunted by the fading prospect of ground action. The decision for the time being not to launch ground forces into the Gaza Strip to finish the job, by reaching the thousands of rockets concealed by Hamas and Jihad Islami underground was indicated by the news leaking out of the security and policy cabinet meeting held in Tel Aviv on Friday, July 11, and the words of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz – “We stand ready for all possible action and await nothing more than a political decision.”
They reflected Netanyahu’s decision to hold off on a ground incursion, so long as Iron Dome batteries shoot rockets down before they hit population centers and cause fatalities, and Israelis remain remarkably obedient to the Home Command’s rules for keeping safe.
The prime minister exercised the same sort of restraint in meting out punishment to the same Hamas for abducting and murdering the three Israeli teenagers, Gil-Ad Shear, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, whose bodies were discovered in a Palestinian West Bank village on June 27.
In the space of weeks, therefore, the Palestinian Islamist organization has twice got away with barbaric acts of terror without having to endure the full might of Israel’s armed forces.
This is consistent with the policies Netanyahu has pursued for five years.
In his televised news conference Friday, the prime minister publicly admitted for the first time the presence of al Qaeda forces around Israel’s borders – to the east, in Iraq and Jordan; to the north, in Syria and Lebanon; and to the south in the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
Although, he seemed to lump Hamas in with the looming Islamist menace, Netanyahu’s answers to reporters’ questions turned abruptly at this point to the issue of Judea and Samaria, left open by the breakdown of the umpteenth round of Israel-Palestinian peace talks earlier this year.
He stressed that in the current circumstances, it was incumbent on Israel to retain its armed forces in the West Bank. If Hamas was permitted to move in, it would “create 20 new Gazas on the West Bank,” he warned.
It may therefore be determined that the Netanyahu government has sketched in the lines of the end-game for Operation Protective Edge: Israel will abstain from a ground incursion and crushing Hamas rule of the Gaza Strip, but will claim in return international-Palestinian and pan-Arab sanction for the IDF to be assigned responsibility for the security of the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria.
This plan was behind Netanyahu’s comment Friday that the round of conversations he held with world leaders were “good” after which he pledged that “no international pressure would prevent us from acting against a terrorist organization aspiring to destroy us,” and “We will continue to defend our home front, the citizens of Israel, with resolve and prudence.”
What the prime minister appeared to be driving at was this: Israel would eradicate a major portion of Hamas’ military resources in Gaza but leave it in power – enfeebled and surrounded by Iron Dome batteries. IDF security control of the West Bank would be internationally accepted as the regional protector for holding al Qaeda belligerency back from swarming out of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Netanyahu’s plan provides Israel with an exit strategy from the Gaza operation, without requiring a ceasefire, which Hamas has anyway flatly refused to accept, except on ridiculously tall terms. But he will find his plan hard to sell outside Jerusalem. In any case, the events of Saturday show it is premature.