Analysis: Sharon has been driven into a corner by Hamas

If proof were needed that Israel wasn’t to blame for the explosions at the Hamas rally in Jabalya on Friday, the political damage the new Gaza flare-up is doing to Ariel Sharon ought to suffice. With critical timing – a day before a crucial Likud Central Committee meeting – the Hamas Qassam barrage, proving that disengagement brought no security, has driven the prime minister into a corner. Many central committee members were skeptical about the disengagement to begin with; Benjamin Netanyahu will not even have to say „I told you so.” The soft underbelly of Sharon’s big move has been exposed. But who could have expected it to happen so soon, less than two weeks after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip? The Qassam fire substantiates some of the pessimistic disengagement forecasts. The communities near the border have become targets of any hostile activity; this transpired a few hours before the blasts in Jabalya, when Islamic Jihad responded to the killing of three of its men near Tul Karm with rocket fire at them. Israel is really not to blame for the escalation this time. It was a result of Hamas’ negligence, which even the Palestinian Authority criticized as „mishandling explosives.” But Israel could not afford even a moment’s gloating at Hamas’ „own goal.” As soon as Hamas had made its accusation, it was clear a rocket attack would ensue and no denial or threat would have prevented it. The defense establishment heads summoned urgently by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz Saturday morning knew they did not have many quick fixes left. Israel failed to find a solution to the Qassam rockets during all the years of conflict in the territories (the first rocket was fired in mid-2001). It has advanced launching-tracing and warning systems, aerial presence and partial protection for public institutions in the Qassam-stricken communities, but if all the military operations into the Gaza Strip failed to stop the fire, it is hard to see how that would change now. Yesterday, large IDF forces gathered on the border in what appears at this stage like an empty threat. A renewed entanglement in the Gaza Strip, so soon after the pullout, would only demonstrate the enormity of the problem caused by it. In the absence of a real solution, Israel decided to return to the old arsenal of responses: striking at munitions warehouses and assassinating Hamas activists in aerial strikes. After the pullout from Lebanon, in May 2000, then-prime minister Ehud Barak threatened „an unprecedented strike” for any Hezbollah belligerence. But when Hezbollah abducted three soldiers in October that year, Barak barely blinked. A week earlier the intifada had broken out and Israel, afraid of opening another front, refrained from responding. This time Israel also talked a lot before the pullout. Mofaz announced „zero tolerance” to terror and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said that „we too have mortars.” Now they have to maneuver between a response strong enough to deter Hamas and a blow that might lead to revenge terror attacks and deterioration. Israel’s approach is expected to be extremely aggressive in the coming days. It is doubtful this would spur the PA to take real against Hamas. However, deliberate deterioration could lead to European intervention to save the situation. Otherwise, we will find ourselves once again with IDF troops in the Strip in a few months. When so much is at stake, Sharon might be driven to radical moves. Much depends on the cool-headedness of the defense establishment chiefs in the next couple of days. Since these are relatively new at their appointments, which they owe Sharon, there may be cause for concern. BPI-info