If it is true that both sides see no reason or have no interest to escalate the conflict at this time, we need to find a way to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.
There is an argument within the Israeli security establishment regarding what should be done vis-àvis the Gaza Strip. All agree that the continued rocket fire from Gaza against the civilian population in the south is intolerable and must be stopped. The argument is mainly between those who favor a major military operation a la Cast Lead II and those who believe that developments in Egypt, Qatari influence in Gaza and some of the more pragmatic elements inside of Hamas can contain the more radical militant forces inside the Gaza strip.
The latter argue that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has been a moderating force opposed to escalation, at least for the present, and that he and other senior leaders are taking action against more radical Salafist and jihadist splinter groups in Gaza. The argument goes that a powerful Israeli military operation will create additional deterrence but that the cost in loss of life (to Gazans) and damage to property will incur wide-ranging and harmful international condemnation and pressure on Israel. The Israeli strike would also probably strengthen the more radical forces in the Gaza Strip at a time when it is possible to see some moderate elements trying to focus on building and state construction.
For the time being the Israeli policy is one of restraint, hitting back for each rocket fired into Israel but trying to limit casualties and damage to property. The narrative of “who started it” is almost always the same and never in agreement between the sides. Take this last round, for example: On Shabbat the IDF worked on both sides of the fence along the Gaza border in the south to clear the area that allowed for someone on the Gazan side to plant a bomb that almost killed a senior Israeli officer last week.
Palestinian fighters fired mortars at the Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers which entered Gaza. IDF troops returned fire and a Palestinian was killed. Early the next morning Palestinian forces fired Grad rockets into Beersheba. The Israeli narrative is that Palestinian fighters planted a bomb along the fence which almost killed and Israeli officer. IDF forces took preventive actions with no aggressive intent to clear the area. The IDF troops were shot at without any real reason, a breach of the cease-fire which was agreed to several days before with Egyptian mediation.
The Palestinian narrative is always that Israel took aggressive action, killing Palestinians in Gaza, and Hamas and other factions are retaliating. The Israeli narrative is always that the IDF took pre-emptive steps to prevent a terrorist attack against Israel, killing “ticking bombs” or cells and militants planning immanent attacks against Israel. Hamas and other groups then shoot tens of rockets into Israel. Israel hits back, inevitably killing a not small number of Palestinians, combatants and non-combatants, to which Hamas and other groups retaliate with more rocket fire into Israel against the civilian population.
This happens until Hamas leaders contact people like me and Egyptian intelligence and ask to send messages to Israel that they do not want to escalate any more. The messages are passed back and forth. Egyptian intelligence receives the firm word of the Hamas prime minister and the heads of the Hamas security that they will impose and enforce a cease-fire on all of the factions, including themselves. Israel demands action, not words, and when Israel observes Palestinian forces enforcing the cease-fire Israel agrees to the Egyptian requests to demonstrate restraint and allow the cease-fire to take hold. Until the next round.
This is the scenario that has repeated itself a dozen times over the past few years. The results are almost always the same – tens of people killed in Gaza, significant damage to property in Israel, enormous costs to the economy in Israel as a result of a shutdown of a large part of the south and about $40,000 for every Iron Dome rocket fired. There are no strategic achievements for either side and both sides admit (at least to themselves) that neither side is interested in escalating the conflict at this time.
There must be a better way. If it is true that both sides see no reason or have no interest to escalate the conflict at this time, we need to find a way to prevent the cycle from repeating itself. The main danger for Israel of escalation is that the rockets fired from Gaza are a statistical weapon. They have no guidance systems. They fall wherever they fall, usually in open spaces, sometimes in the sea and sometimes even in Gaza. But they could fall on a bus, a school or a supermarket. They could cause quite a lot of damage and loss of life.
If the apparent cause of each round is pre-emptive Israeli action against impending attacks from Gaza, which have almost all been non-Hamas driven, there would presumably be a Hamas interest in taking action against those forces which are taking action without Hamas permission, thereby endangering the security of Gaza and its people. If the pre-emptive strike is against a real ticking bomb, e.g. a cell which is about to fire rockets, then this would not be in the category of threats which can wait.
If, on the other hand, there is Israeli intelligence information about a cell planning an attack or preparing for an attack and there is time to prevent it without Israel killing the perpetrators, it is possible that through the Egyptian intelligence the information can be provided to Hamas along with a set amount of time to deal with the threat. If the threat is not dealt with by Hamas, Israel will deal with it. If the aggressors are simply warned off by Hamas so that they delay the attack for a later time, then obviously the continuing sharing of intelligence information would be foolish.
If Hamas actually takes action and prevents the attack in a decisive way, arrests the cell, confiscates their weapons and punishes them in a public way, then the exercise of developing a mechanism for preventing attacks can be more formalized and institutionalized.
Like most things in the intelligence world, the exercise would not be public and would enable both sides the necessary deniability to their own public.
If the alternative to prevention is another war then everything must be tried and tested to prevent that war.
War should always be our last resort. The rockets must stop but there might be more than one way of making that happen.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.