Escalation in Gaza

Assassinate First, Invade Later?

11.15.12 9:45 PM ET

Israel had no choice but to react to Hamas’s escalation of attacks on Southern Israel. No sovereign country could simply let its citizens live under constant threat. The question for me is not whether Israel had to react, but how.

Hamas’s decision to step up attacks against Israel is motivated by internal Palestinian politics. Mahmoud Abbas is preparing the Palestinian pitch to the U.N. General Assembly for recognition as a non-member state, which, if successful, would be an important victory. This is not good for Hamas, because it would prove to Palestinians that Fatah’s search for compromise serves them better then Hamas’s rejectionism. Hamas knew that rocket attacks would expose Gazans to Israeli retaliation, but it has shown in the past that it is willing to sacrifice the well-being of Gaza’s population for political gain.

Facing a cynical opponent, Israel’s government met with hard choices: should it go for a large-scale operation, as it did in 2008 through 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, with the humanitarian cost and diplomatic setbacks it would entail? Or should it stick to a more limited attack, geared at increasing deterrence and destroying as much launching capability as possible?

Israel chose to begin its reaction with the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military chief. There is no doubt that at first this created satisfaction in Israel, as Jabari was involved in many attacks on Israel. But there are a number of reasons to think that this satisfaction is shortsighted. Even if Israel was attempting to limit the scope of its response, the ensuing escalation means that a larger-scale conflict may be inevitable.

Yossi Sarid has pointed out that if we look back, targeted assassinations have never led to long-term successes. Israel took out Hezbollah Leader Abbas Musawi, a notorious attack strategist, Yihye Ayash and Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. They were all replaced, in some cases with leaders more effective than they were.

Aluf Benn made an interesting point: he says that Ahmed Jabari was Israel’s “subcontractor” in Gaza: he could be more or less relied on to reign in the smaller terror organizations, and largely succeeded in doing so in the last years.

The latest news is that Jabari was actually negotiating a long-term truce with Israel. This is reported in the name of Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who played a central role in the negotiations that led to Gilad Shalit’s release. Baskin thinks that by Jabari’s assassination will cost many lives in the future.

Israel’s automatic detractors already say that Israel’s reaction is disproportionate or unjustified, even though I cannot imagine that any sovereign state would have refrained from retaliation. But the killing of Jabari may well have traded the option of long-term calm for short-term satisfaction. The escalation may even force Egypt’s President Morsi to reconsider their 1979 peace treaty with Israel.