‘Every Escalation Is More Difficult’


Tel Aviv — Tamara Cohen and other Israelis near the Gaza Strip call it a “haslama,” Hebrew for escalation.

They are several daylong violent spasms in which the Israeli army and Palestinian rocket launchers trade blows, sending one million running for cover and forcing school cancellation. Eventually, a cease-fire is achieved, and life returns to a sense of near normalcy.

But after four years of this, a month in which southern Israelis were subjected to two separate rocket upsurges from Gaza has residents and politicians fed up.

“At the beginning we had an escalation every year, then we had one every three months, and now it’s every week,” said Cohen, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Habesor. “Every escalation is more difficult. The kids ask questions, they hear the noises of war. No alarm, but they hear the explosions. These are not normal noises for kids and adults, too. It’s like a Vietnam War movie. We are in a bubble of war.”

That could put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an uncomfortable spot as he embarks on a re-election campaign ahead of a Jan. 22 vote that is predicated on the idea that he has maintained security and stability in the face of regional upheaval.

Such a narrative is harder to sustain when parents in southern Israel are tucking their kids into bed every night in a bomb shelter bedroom amid a sense that security has unraveled in the four years since Israel launched a punishing ground offensive in Gaza.

The prime minister “is afraid that he will be perceived as a weak leader by his constituency,” said Shlomo Brom, a former brigadier general who is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. At the same time, “starting a big operation in Gaza is too big a gamble. It can become a drawn-out campaign, and missiles might fall on Israeli cities … it’s a question of how the public will perceive these costs.”

To be sure, some experts note the very focus on national security issues ultimately benefits the prime minister because there are no rival candidates that can compete with him in this area — even if it seems that security in declining for residents in southern Israel.

As long as Israel’s media is dominated by national security issues, the prime minister is insulated from attacks on his socioeconomic policy — where he is seen as most vulnerable.

Indeed, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, whose center-left party is projected to be the second-largest party in the next parliament and the main challenger to the prime minister, has no national security experience and is trying to focus exclusively on the economy while virtually ceding foreign policy to other parties.

Border flare-ups that dominate the news and allow the prime minister to play the role of commander in chief, steal the stage from Yachimovich in the same way Hurricane Sandy distracted attention from Mitt Romney.

“It largely plays into the prime minister’s hands,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “In general this makes the prime minister and the defense minister look tougher. It detracts from the Labor Party, which wants to make the economy the central part of the election.”

That said, some analysts pointed out that Netanyahu’s policy is far from immune to criticism. Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, said that Palestinian militants no longer heed Israel’s repeated threats of a ground invasion. The policy of piecemeal retaliation for rocket attacks has failed, he said.

“Israel has not had a viable strategy for dealing with the threat to Israel posed by Hamas-rule Gaza,” Alpher said.

“What we’re doing is making threats that increasingly aren’t seen as having anything behind them. The weapons being fired out of Gaza are more effective.”

On Monday it seemed as if the prime minister was preparing the ground for a broad offensive not seen since Operation Cast Lead, a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip that left more than 1,000 Palestinians — most of them fighters — dead.

Like in previous escalations, the Israeli press percolated with politicians predicting that a new push was unavoidable to restore Israel’s deterrence. The prime minister traveled to Ashkelon — the southern Israel city just a few miles up the coast from Gaza — to explain to foreign diplomats Israel’s predicament.

“The world must understand that Israel has the right and full obligation to defend its citizens,” Netanyahu said. “We won’t sit with our arms folded in the face of nearly daily attacks on our citizens and children.”

If that weren’t enough, spillover fire from the Syrian civil war into the Golan Heights prompted Israeli tanks to fire back into Syria on Monday at mobile artillery units. It was the first exchange between the enemies since the 1973 war, raising the specter that the Golan Heights could again become a volatile border zone after four decades of quiet.

Despite the ominous prospect of renewed war with Syria, the military and experts consider the Syrian spillover — consisting of mortar shells, bullet fire and tanks in the UN-patrolled demilitarized zone — as accidental.

After weeks of holding fire and making due with complaints to the United Nations, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel would now follow with a tit-for-tat open-fire policy — a shift some analysts said risks the outbreak of an unintentional war.

Neither Israel nor Syria is seen as spoiling for a fight. Some believe that President Bashar Assad might lash out at Israel in desperation if he were backed into a corner, but right now he is still waging a war of attrition and prefers not to clash with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel would prefer not to become embroiled in the Golan Heights or the Gaza Strip, observers say.

Rather than an all-out clash with Syria, Israel and the U.S. have feared that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of Hezbollah, which might be more willing to make use of nonconventional munitions.

High-ranking military officials say their real fear is that a power vacuum in Syria near the Golan Heights border could be exploited by militants or Iran in the same way that armed groups have exploited a breakdown in security in the Sinai desert.

Back near the Gaza border, Tamara Cohen admitted that despite her commitment to remain on the kibbutz, she could live under rocket fire for only so long. She said Israel should consider all options — including talks with Hamas and even an offensive — to rein in the violence.

“Four different [Israeli] governments haven’t found a solution,” Cohen said. “We feel that job isn’t done. I don’t believe in re-occupying. I believe in live and let live. I don’t want [Gazans] to live in war and under occupation.”

Cohen continued: “If Israel and Gaza are not able to sit together and get an arrangement, then the government should do something else. I want to live in peace with my neighbors, but if Gazans are not able to get the terrorist groups under a cease-fire, then maybe Israel should help them.”