Source Link: Stratfor
Recent incidents in Israel, including a third day of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza and a March 23 bombing at a Jerusalem bus station, reflect heightened tensions in a country that had been conspicuously quiet amid the regional unrest. There are signs that at least some Palestinian factions are deliberately attempting to provoke Israel into a renewed offensive in Gaza. It is not clear what will happen as the crisis intensifies in Israel, but a military operation against Gaza could become a rallying point for protest movements across the Middle East.
Artillery rockets and mortar rounds fired from Gaza continued to fall on Israeli territory March 24, with some eight artillery rockets falling March 24. This follows similar incidents of rocket and mortar fire March 22-23. These incidents, along with a March 23 bombing at a Jerusalem bus station, the brutal March 11 stabbing deaths of an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement and recent Israeli military strikes on Gaza (including four retaliatory airstrikes March 24), represent renewed tensions in a country that had until now been conspicuously quiet amid the regional unrest.
At least some Palestinian factions appear to be attempting to provoke Israel into a military engagement in Gaza, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made it clear March 24 that Israel considered Hamas responsible for all rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Given the steady escalation of attacks, plans for such a military campaign could now be under way. Past Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, particularly Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, allow groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to rally Arabs around an anti-Israeli campaign. Iran has also used such conflicts to present itself as the true Islamic vanguard of the Palestinian resistance, in contrast to the Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan that would rather see the Palestinians kept in check. Egypt, in particular, is caught in a dilemma of having to publicly condemn Israel while clamping down on border crossings from the Sinai to Gaza for security reasons and cooperating quietly enough with the Israelis to ensure that an outpouring of support for Hamas does not embolden the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) at home.
The current environment amplifies this dynamic. Coming out of its own political crisis, Egypt’s military-led government has given every indication that it intends to honor the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and continue cooperating with Israel in containing Gaza militancy. At the same time, the Egyptian government is also still trying to manage a shaky political transition in lead-up to elections in September that are being eyed by the MB as a historic opportunity to gain political power. So far, the military has maintained a positive image with the majority of the Egyptian public, but this could change if the MB uses a possible Israeli military campaign in Gaza to redirect public ire at the military for exacerbating the plight of Gazans. The political rise of the MB works to the advantage of Hamas, an Islamist movement that grew out of the MB. Hamas is hoping the political dynamic in Cairo shifts to one more amenable to Hamas’ interests and less cooperative with Israel, adding to the group’s long-term survivability.
Public and private statements by Hamas leaders give the impression that the group was not involved in the bus bombing but endorses the attack as a response to Israeli aggression. PIJ, meanwhile, has claimed responsibility for many of the rocket attacks. Claims and denials should not be taken at face value; many Palestinian groups, especially Hamas, prefer to use front groups while maintaining plausible deniability.
An escalation in the Palestinian territories plays to the Iranian agenda, but the extent of Iranian involvement in this building crisis remains unclear. PIJ, out of all the Palestinian militant factions, is the closest to Iran. Hamas is also known to receive some support for Iran but would publicly avoid being cast as another Iranian militant proxy. Other groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade-Imad Mughniyah, which claimed the March 11 West Bank attack, are believed to be the product of Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has so far remained quiet but must be watched closely for signs that it, too, is looking to open a front with Israel.
Gaza Artillery Rocket Attacks and the Israeli Response
Several of the rockets fired from Gaza significantly exceeded the range of the BM-21 Grad, which was first fired by militants from within Gaza in 2007. Grads and the Qassam, the staple of Gaza militancy, continue to be in play, along with shorter-range mortar fire. However, during Operation Cast Lead, Iranian-made Fajr-3 or artillery rockets of similar size began to crash down much farther into Israeli territory than previous rockets from Gaza. The Fajr-3 has a range of 45 kilometers (28 miles), double that of a Grad and more than quadruple that of the best Qassams.
This range allows rockets fired from Gaza to impact much deeper into the heart of Israel and into more densely packed population centers outside Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. However, there is still a considerable buffer between the cities themselves and demonstrated capability out of Gaza, and even the farthest of the March 22-24 rocket strikes — largely in the direction of Tel Aviv — have still fallen short of the city itself.
It will be important to distinguish between sporadic Qassam attacks and consistently targeted ones — especially ones using Grad and Fajr-3 rockets to threaten more densely populated and sensitive areas of Israel. Sustained attacks with these longer-range rockets, which by their nature are harder to smuggle into and use in Gaza than the Qassams, may indicate a deliberate effort to instigate a conflict in which Israel responds with a characteristically heavy hand, not only bringing international condemnation upon itself but also becoming a rallying point for regional unrest — especially in Egypt.
The one new Israeli counter is the preliminary deployment of the Iron Dome counter-artillery rocket system. The system is inappropriate for defending against every mortar and Qassam to fly out of Gaza, but the Grad and Fajr-3 fall squarely within its designed engagement envelope — if the small number of existing batteries are active and appropriately positioned. However, this system was set to be operational in February, but the status — much less disposition — of the first batteries is unclear, and there have not yet been any reports of its use. Its effectiveness thus remains to be seen, but experience during this current inflammation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions will likely play a role in refining and working toward a more robust shield. In any event, for this conflict at this time, it will not fundamentally change the military dynamic.
As the latest unrest in Israel unfolds, the following will be particularly noteworthy:
- Additional bombings, especially suicide attacks, inside Israel
- High-casualty artillery rocket strikes in Israel that could make significant military action by Israel against Gaza politically difficult to avoid
- Signs of rocket impacts far beyond the 45-kilometer radius of a Fajr-3 or comparable rocket that allows militants in Gaza to threaten even more sensitive locations and densely packed populations
- Any sign that Israel is mobilizing for a major operation in Gaza
It is not clear what will happen as the crisis intensifies in Israel. But if it does escalate considerably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could rapidly become the focal point of the unrest in the Middle East.