by Dan Margalit
To borrow from the Passover Haggadah, why is this rocket barrage different from all other rocket barrages? Or at least most of them?
It is different because this time Egypt is no longer the same-old Egypt. It lacks a stable regime; its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is shaky; and it still lacks a president who is accepted by all sectors of society.
This time around, no one can blame Israel for violating the fragile truce; the Egyptian military's grip over the Sinai has loosened despite Israel green-lighting Egypt's deployment of more troops in the demilitarized peninsula (under the bilateral peace treaty Egypt is allowed only a symbolic military presence in the Sinai). Even worse, Egypt has yet to send all the troops it was allowed.
The rocket-launching terrorists may have acted under the assumption that Egypt's new president will come from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas [which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood] believes the rules have changed. This is why on Tuesday, for the first time since Operation Cast Lead at the very end of 2008, it fired 30 Qassam rockets into the Negev. This act serves two purposes: the first – to end the relative calm; the second – to demonstrate Hamas' power over the Gaza Strip and its projection of power into Sinai by firing only a limited number of projectiles for now.
Escalations in the Negev always begin with small arms. Only later, toward the final act, are Grad rockets fired toward Ashdod and Beersheba, just before a lull in violence.
The new geopolitical reality in the region poses new challenges. Gaza is controlled by a marked terrorist regime; it has no recognized sovereign. What the IDF can do in the Gaza Strip – namely, to retaliate forcefully – does not apply to Sinai, where the reality is much different and where it is much more difficult to build intelligence assets. Moreover, any attempt to target terrorist squads in Sinai would be a violation of Egyptian sovereignty.
Top defense officials convened Tuesday night to discuss a whole range of issues related to Israel's response to the recent rocket barrages. The prime minister and the so called "forum of nine " [an inner cabinet of top ministers] will have to make a decision based on these discussions. For the time being, the most pressing question is whether Israel must engage in a tit for tat every time the terrorists strike. This tactic has proved itself since Operation Cast Lead. But with Egypt's Islamists on the rise and al-Qaida affiliates increasingly noticeable in that country, will this policy continue to work?
This new reality, both on the political and the terrorist front, should probably merit the typical response. At least for now. For the time being, there is no other option but to use proportional force to contain the threat, or at least reduce the terrorist activity and mitigate the impact somewhat.
The response must send a strong message so that residents of the border communities are not forced to go back to the shelter for too many days again. Sderot can return to normalcy after a series of barrages, but this tough endeavor takes time. An effective, strong and unwavering IDF response might make this quicker.
The latest salvos from the Gaza Strip have come as a surprise. While experts believe calm will eventually be restored, there are now new circumstances. If history is any guide, this new reality ensures repeated attacks, albeit on a moderate scale. But the eventual outcome is clear – another Cast Lead-like operation in the Gaza Strip.
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