This week's flare-up of violence around the Gaza Strip raised the specter of another Israeli ground incursion into the Palestinian territory. Despite an intense escalation of violence over less than 48 hours, however, the two sides pulled back from the brink of war, agreeing to a cease-fire that ended the exchange of militant rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes and dissipated fears of further military operations. So why did similar violence in the past lead to an Israeli ground war while this episode did not? What sets apart these escalations and what determines how far they actually go?
Escalations between Gaza militant groups and Israel occur where multiple forces both external and internal meet. There's the obvious overall competition between Israel and the Palestinian cause. But there's also the separate competitions for control that occur within Gaza and Israel. Leaders on both sides are not free to choose how they respond to unfolding events. Their actions have consequences that could result in an electoral defeat or in a popular uprising against their leadership if they fail to step adequately into the role in which they have been cast.
Take this week's escalation, for example. The spark that ignited this fleeting crisis was a rather anomalous firefight on Nov. 11, which occurred near Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. Hamas militants apparently discovered an Israeli clandestine intelligence operation in Gaza, which led to a skirmish that included Israeli airstrikes to cover the withdrawal of the Israeli troops and to destroy abandoned equipment. This event took place against the backdrop of ongoing, Egyptian-mediated negotiations between Hamas and Israel, which are meant to try to bring long-term stability to the Gaza Strip and soften the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of it.
The firefight itself wasn't necessarily unavoidable, and while the covert Israeli operation went against the spirit of the negotiations, it is generally assumed that Israel conducts clandestine operations in the Gaza Strip. Still, Hamas retaliated by launching rockets into southern Israel, and Israel responded by conducting airstrikes. If this incident was truly regarded as an anomaly against the backdrop of attainable objectives in the negotiations, neither party would have had an interest in escalating the situation as much as they did.
Compelled by Internal Competition
Neither the Hamas leadership in Gaza nor the Israeli government, however, exists as monolithic actors on their respective sides of the conflict. Each is interested in fulfilling its policy objectives, such as the negotiations that were taking place, but each also has an interest in maintaining its position of leadership. Choosing not to retaliate, even if it serves their policy objectives, could weaken their legitimacy as leaders relative to their respective political competitors. In fact, the reaction to the cease-fire within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet shows this position clearly. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman handed in his resignation on Nov. 14, and his Yisrael Beitenu party says it will leave Netanyahu's ruling coalition, because the government refused to take its military action against Gaza any further.
In much the same way, Hamas faces competition from other resistance organizations in the Gaza Strip, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah and more. Each of these groups has its own armed wing and tries to project itself as the true defender of the Palestinians. Had Hamas not retaliated strongly enough to the Israeli operation in Gaza, and had it not sanctioned retaliation by these other groups, it would have played into the perception that it is not truly standing up to Israel but instead is conspiring with them against the interests of the Palestinian people.
In fact, these different armed factions within the Gaza Strip often trigger similar dynamics in order to constrain Hamas from achieving its objectives. By instigating violent incidents, whether by launching rockets or mortar shells at Israeli communities near Gaza or by deploying improvised explosive devices near the border fence, they elicit an Israeli response that then forces Hamas to either retaliate against Israel itself or crack down on the instigators within Gaza.
Most of the time, when this violence happens, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are not seeking to engage each other in an extended high-intensity conflict that includes ground incursions into Gaza. Such operations take up significant amounts of resources and produce great collateral damage. This is not an action either side wants to consider lightly, and it is one they will engage in only when there are immediate military objectives to be achieved.
For example, when clashes escalated into ground campaigns in 2012 and 2014, Israeli forces entered Gaza with the clear objective of destroying long-range artillery rocket stockpiles. Palestinian militants had gained access to Iranian-designed Fajr-5 artillery rockets and, unlike the existing Palestinian arsenal before this, these rockets were able to strike as far as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Dimona. Faced with such a significant threat, and with an acceptable chance of removing it through ground incursions, Israeli leadership easily supported the escalation.
During this latest round of violence, as with several other more limited exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes over the past year, no such excessive threat was present. Individual incidents, such as the firefight near Khan Yunis, still lead to a cycle of retaliatory escalation. But as this week demonstrated, cease-fires are reinstated if, in the end, the path toward further escalation does not align with higher-level objectives on either side. As pressure builds on each side's leadership, however, and if new threats emerge in future bouts of escalation, these higher-level objectives may shift toward more serious confrontations.