Hamas Goads Israel Into War

The shaky six-month Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and Gaza ended last Friday with exchanges of fire across the border. While diplomats scrambled to negotiate an extension of the ceasefire, Islamic Jihad, a militant organization that Hamas claims it does not control, celebrated the end of the truce by pounding Sderot and the western Negev with ‘round the clock barrages of Qassams. They also  launched Grad rockets at Ashkelon, which is usually out of Qassam range. The barrages escalated as this week wore on, with 88  landing in Sderot and the surrounding communities over a one-day period on Wednesday. The IDF, meanwhile, killed three Palestinians who were laying explosives on the Gaza-Israel fence.

Confined to their homes and fearful, the residents of Sderot and the western Negev are having a particularly gloomy Hanukkah. For many, the situation has become intolerable. Two out of three children in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the government does not subsidize safe rooms in private homes, only the relatively well off can afford the luxury of personal shelters from the homemade rockets -- not that they help much, since Gaza's close proximity (500 meters) means that the early warning system can offer only a few seconds' notice of an incoming rocket. Area residents, the majority of whom are economically and socially disadvantaged, accuse the government of ignoring their concerns because they live on Israel's neglected "periphery."

With the people of Sderot crying out to the government to "do something," Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, lost no time in scoring some political points. Speaking in his much-satirized heavy Russian accent, Lieberman claimed that he would stop the Qassams in a week -- although he hasn't yet shared his military strategy with the public. Most senior IDF officers admit that military action is unlikely to stop the Qassams, which are launched  by young men wearing civilian clothes, using mobile launchers. Gaza is small, so it is easy for them to hide the launchers and melt into one of the densely populated refugee camps.

Since an IDF attack would focus on the areas where the young men hide, an air attack or major ground operation would inevitably result in heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. The footage of dead babies and wounded children being treated in Gaza's only hospital, which is under-equipped as a result of the ongoing embargo imposed by Israel, will be a public relations disaster for Israel and a triumph for Hamas.

Nonetheless, because he is under pressure to "do something," Defense Minister Ehud Barak says he is considering an air force assault on Gaza. Others in the Israeli government are calling for a full-out IDF ground operation that would end with a re-occupation of the territory. Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005, ending a 38-year occupation.