Israel and Hamas are fighting their third major conflict in six years, and while some things have stayed the same, the battle lines have also shifted in a few notable ways. Here are eight things you need to know about the current conflagration:
- Iron Dome has been a game changer: The U.S.-funded Israeli anti-missile system was operational during the last conflagration, in November 2012, but its remarkable success rate this go-around has reduced Gaza’s missiles to more of an irritant than a deadly threat for Israel – so far.
In the eight-day conflict of 2012, Gaza fired some 1,500 rockets into Israel and killed six Israelis, five of them from rocket fire. In the three-week war of 2008-09, 750 rockets were fired into Israel, killing three (another 10 Israelis were killed in fighting). By comparison, more than 1,100 rockets have been fired toward Israel this time and thus far there’s only been one Israeli death – and by mortar fire at a border area, not a rocket attack.
While one missed rocket can make things drastically worse, the success of Iron Dome has bought Israel time to carry out its Gaza operation without overwhelming domestic pressure for either a cease-fire or an escalation.
• Iron Dome’s success is bad for Israeli PR: It’s a paradox of Israel’s able defenses that media coverage of this conflict has focused overwhelmingly on Palestinian suffering in Gaza, prompting complaints from some supporters of Israel. But in the absence of Israeli deaths, Gaza is where the story is. The scenes of devastation there, the tales of human loss and the Palestinian death toll are much more compelling for most viewers and readers than images of Israelis hunkering down in bomb shelters, taking cover in shopping malls or peeking into a hole in the ground where a rocket landed.
But Israelis would rather suffer bad PR than battlefield losses.
• Israel does not want a full-scale war: Israel’s quick embrace of an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire early Tuesday was a sign of its reticence to launch a ground invasion of Gaza and turn this into a full-scale war, despite calls from some hawkish Israeli Cabinet members to deal Hamas a death blow.
Israel would love to eliminate Hamas, but it doesn’t seem able to do so. Despite some limited success, after every conflagration Hamas has managed to re-arm and improve its rocket capacity, as evident in the rocket range on display in this round of fighting. Another ground operation likely would result in greater loss of lives on the Israeli side and worse carnage in Gaza.
The Israeli government wants this over quickly because the longer it lasts, the greater the chances an errant Israeli strike causes mass Palestinian civilian deaths or a Palestinian rocket manages to penetrate Israel’s defenses and cause significant Israeli casualties.
• Israel and Hamas are at a stalemate: On the defensive front, this confrontation has been a big win for Israel: Iron Dome has managed to render Hamas’s rockets mostly impotent, and the Israeli army foiled an attempt by Hamas attackers to infiltrate Israel via sea. There has been just one Israeli death so far, as mentioned above, from mortar fire at the Erez border crossing where Israel and Gaza meet.
On the offensive front, however, Israel hasn’t managed to curtail the rocket fire, kill the top leaders of Hamas or significantly disable its fighting capabilities. Hawks argue that Israel could accomplish those goals if it launched a full-fledged war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu either doesn’t agree or is unwilling to pay the price in Israeli lives or Palestinian collateral damage.
For Hamas, which started off the war severely weakened politically, the battle has been an opportunity to demonstrate the improved range of its rockets and reassert its position as the Palestinian faction willing and able to take on Israel. But Hamas’s inability to inflict any significant damage on Israel or protect Gaza from Israeli assault is not good for its reputation.