Is Israel About to Invade Gaza Again?

As rockets and threats fly fast and furious, a familiar tension builds in the Middle East.

TEL AVIV, Israel — It happens, on average, every three months or so. Dozens of Palestinian rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip at southern Israeli towns and villages, while the Israeli air force pounds Palestinian military camps and positions spread across Gaza's densely populated urban areas. The two sides exchange threats: One says it will bomb the opponent back to the Stone Age, while the other promises that the gates of hell will open on the enemy.

In most cases, things get pretty much back to normal within a few days. Normalcy is a relative concept, of course -- the most one can hope for is a very tense calm along this hostile border. That is, until the cycle repeats itself.

In the latest exchange of fire, which began on March 11, Palestinian militants have launched roughly 70 rockets into southern Israel and the Israeli air force has responded by striking dozens of sites within Gaza. The violence was sparked by a controversy over “the perimeter” -- a narrow strip of land to the west of the fence that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that it is on the Palestinian side, Israel insists that it needs to occasionally send patrols there, to search for explosives that might threaten the lives of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. Hamas, which controls Gaza, accepts this -- it is part of the “understandings” that were reached with Israel, through Egyptian mediation, after Israel's last major military operation in Gaza in November 2012.

But Hamas isn’t the only group with rockets in Gaza. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Gaza's second largest organization, never signed on to this particular understanding -- and sporadically chooses to challenge it with force. This is what happened on March 11: An Israeli force crossed the southernmost part of the fence, whereupon it was bombarded with mortar fire. The soldiers were not hurt, but the Israeli air force promptly spotted the mortar team and struck back, killing three Palestinian militants.

Islamic Jihad upped the ante 24 hours later, launching a barrage of rockets at many Israeli towns. The attack did not succeed in hurting a single Israeli -- in part thanks to the Iron Dome air defense system, which managed to intercept three rockets aimed at the town of Sderot.

An Islamic Jihad spokesperson dubbed the attack "Operation Breaking the Silence" -- by now, both sides are fond of dramatic names -- and said that it was time for Israel to pay for its crimes. The Israelis’ rhetoric was also tough: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to respond with “massive force,” while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that the IDF should reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

Is Israel really contemplating an invasion of Gaza? The answer, unequivocally, is no. The last thing Netanyahu wants to do is take responsibility for the region’s more than 1.5 million residents. Netanyahu even avoided sending ground forces into Gaza during the November 2012 operation, believing -- correctly -- that it could lead to a dangerous quagmire.

Netanyahu, in fact, is likely happy to maintain the status quo in Gaza. For this Israeli prime minister, Hamas is an almost perfect partner: True, its leaders detest Israel -- but this only serves to prevent any form of direct negotiations between the two sides, which could lead to more international demands for Israeli concessions. Since Hamas will not sit at the same negotiating table with the Jewish state, it also cannot enlist international support for pressure against Israel like its major political opponent, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

While the Islamist regime in Gaza continues to pay lip service to the military struggle against Israel, it seems that Hamas is currently more focused on its political survival. A direct clash with the IDF, a much stronger force, will not serve Hamas's purposes.

Moreover, the regional balance of power appears to be turning against Hamas. Since the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was toppled by a military coup last summer, Cairo and Jerusalem have significantly improved their relationship. While Cairo's strongman, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, carefully avoids any direct, high-profile contacts with the Israelis, co-operation between both sides' militaries has hardly ever been better. Not only did Egypt almost completely halt the smuggling of weapons through the underground tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, it also constantly warns Hamas not to provoke Israel. Earlier this month, an Egyptian court even outlawed Hamas entirely, in another sign of the Palestinian Islamist group’s growing isolation.

Sure, Hamas would like to draw Israeli blood every now and then -- but it currently can’t risk the possibility of provoking retaliation. Its problems are not only with Egypt; the movement has also recently distanced itself from two of its major backers, Iran and the Syrian regime. The Syrian army’s slaughter of the Sunni opposition led to Hamas's public disavowal of the regime in Damascus, which in turn created tensions with Tehran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest supporter. As a result, Iran’s supply of money and weapons to Hamas is believed to have been curtailed substantially.

As the recent altercation has shown, however, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has emerged as the greatest unknown in the Gaza equation. The group doesn't necessarily adhere to orders from Hamas: Just last week, Israeli commandos boarded a ship off the coast of Sudan, which apparently was full of Iran-made rockets destined for Gaza. The rockets -- some of them with a 100-mile range, which could cover most of Israel's population centers, if launched from Gaza -- were most likely meant to reach Islamic Jihad militants.

There are signs that this round of what seems to be an endless cycle of violence may already be winding down. On Thursday afternoon, Islamic Jihad announced that it would accept the renewal of the ceasefire. It remains to be seen whether all the organization's field operatives will obey instructions -- several rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel as night fell on Thursday. But since all the other three major actors -- Israel, Hamas, and Egypt -- are evidently interested in restoring calm, the odds of preventing a more serious military conflict seem good.

At some point, however, the calm will once again be broken. This is a fragile truce, achieved only through regular threats of massive bloodshed -- not an actual peace, cemented in a comprehensive agreement. Don’t expect an Israeli invasion, but don't expect the rockets from Gaza to stop, either. That status quo is too convenient for both sides.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images


Why Ukraine Should Risk It All

Forget Crimea. Kiev needs to hold a referendum on secession in all its southeastern provinces.

Tensions continue to rise ahead of Crimea's vote to join the Russian Federation, scheduled to take place on Sunday. Russian troops are massing along the Ukrainian border, and a spokesman for the government in Kiev has warned of a possible "full-scale invasion from various directions." Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has added fuel to the fire by reportedly questioning whether Ukraine's exit from the USSR was legal. Fortunately, there's a simple way to defuse the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once and for all. Forget a single-province referendum in Crimea: Ukraine should ask the United Nations or some other neutral international organization to hold a vote on secession in all the southeastern provinces with significant Russian and Russian-speaking populations.

If that sounds outlandish or foolhardy or even politically impossible, just consider what it would accomplish. Russia insists these southeastern populations are being threatened by the "neo-Nazis" and "fascists" in Kiev. Putin insists he has the right to employ military force to defend them. Kiev -- along with most Western observers -- reasonably rejects these claims, but being right makes little difference when Moscow has the force of might on its side. According to acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, Russia has positioned 220,000 soldiers, 1,800 tanks, 400 helicopters, 150 planes, and 60 ships along Ukraine's eastern border. By contrast, Ukraine's infantry consists of 41,000 soldiers, of whom only 6,000 are battle-ready. In other words, if Putin were to launch an attack on Ukraine, it would swiftly succeed, although it could conceivably become bogged down in a prolonged occupation and pacification fight.

Since the relative force capability precludes a successful military defense of Ukraine by Kiev -- and a Western military intervention is unlikely as long as Russia's aggression is confined to the southeastern provinces (all bets are off if Russian tanks advance on Kiev or Lviv) -- Ukraine's government really has only one option: to remove the pretext for a possible invasion. Since Russia insists that any intervention would be motivated solely by a desire to help threatened countrymen, Ukraine should act immediately to determine just how many of its southeastern residents do in fact feel threatened enough to want independence. The provinces in question would be, from west to east: Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv. Ideally, Crimea would be added to the mix.

An internationally-conducted referendum would give the residents of these provinces the chance to speak for themselves. The organization overseeing the vote would have to be acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, and the West; the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe come to mind. Guided by international conventions, that organization should determine how high the percentage of pro-independence votes would have to be to trigger legal secession: 50 percent plus one, 60 percent, or some other figure. The referendum should be held as quickly as possible, so as to keep tensions from rising as a result of divisive campaigning. To guarantee a peaceful environment, U.N. peacekeepers should be temporarily deployed to the provinces in question. Three-person teams of international observers consisting of one European or American, one Ukrainian, and one Russian could monitor the voting. The results should be binding on both Ukraine and Russia. The question could be as simple as this: "Do you support X province's independence from Ukraine and annexation by the Russian Federation?" Since both Russia and Ukraine insist that the local populations support them, a referendum would call their bluffs.

There is actually a precedent for this kind of procedure in recent Soviet history. On March 17, 1991, Soviet voters were asked to vote on the following question: "Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?" Seventy-one percent of Ukrainians voted yes. Ukrainian voters were also asked: "Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet sovereign states on the basis of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine?" Eighty-two percent said yes. Although the referendum proved inconclusive -- the August putsch followed soon thereafter, Mikhail Gorbachev effectively lost power, and Ukraine declared independence on Aug. 24 -- it is certainly still remembered in Ukraine and could serve to legitimate a new vote.

The results of a referendum in Ukraine's southeastern provinces should be acceptable to Russia, but it's a gamble. The will of the people will have been heard, and if, as Moscow insists, it is pro-Russian, the Russian Federation will have the opportunity to annex a few territories. If it is not pro-Russian, then Moscow will have to recognize that its claims of persecution are unfounded.

Ukraine should also be satisfied with such a procedure, both because a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine looks more likely with every day and because mid-February polling data suggest that none of the southeastern provinces has more than a third of its voters supporting unification with Russia. If these provinces choose to stay, then Russia will no longer be able to claim that they are oppressed. If pro-Russian sentiment grows exponentially in the immediate future and some provinces choose to leave, then Ukraine's stability and security will only be enhanced by the departure of regions with fifth columns that exceed 50 or 60 percent of the population and that, as a result, could not be defended from Russian aggression.

The referendum could be capped with a broad treaty between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States in which all sides agree to respect the referendum's results in perpetuity. Russia and Ukraine would also agree to respect each other's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, to provide for minority rights (especially in the disputed southeastern provinces), to refrain from threatening actions, and to respect each other's choice of domestic policies and international orientations.

The results would insulate Ukraine from further Russian aggression -- and they should satisfy Putin that large numbers of southeastern Ukrainians aren't being held hostage against their will. Unless Putin intends to swallow all of Ukraine and thereby declare war on the entire post-war international order, he should appreciate that only such a referendum would produce legal and legitimate outcomes, and not internationally unrecognized statelets and frozen conflicts at best, and a land war, a lengthy occupation, and the certainty of protracted conflict at worst.