Israel-Hamas: a clash waiting to happen

Hamas militant

For Israel, the offensive in Gaza has been brewing for months. After dealing Hamas a heavy blow in an offensive four years ago, Israeli intelligence has carefully watched the group recover and restock its arsenal with more powerful weapons and longer-range rockets. Rocket fire has steadily increased over the past two years, with more than 1,000 launched at Israel this year alone, according to the military. A pair of incidents last week marked a significant escalation in Israel's view. First, Hamas militants blew up a tunnel along the Israeli border in an attempt to attack Israeli troops. Then, Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep, seriously wounding four soldiers.

Israel's unhappiness with Hamas' surging confidence was evident in comments by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "Hamas mistakenly thought that because of the change in government in Egypt and the election here that we will not respond properly,'' he said.

As rocket fire heated up early this week, there were an increasing number of calls by the Israeli public for a response by the government, which is up for re-election on Jan. 22.

Might Israel have decided to escalate – or allow itself to be easily provoked – with electoral calculations in mind? Israeli officials dismiss such suggestions, and the army says the objective is solely to halt the rocket fire.

Still, historical precedent certainly seems to be there:

In June 1981, weeks before a vote he seemed set to lose, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the air force to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in faraway Iraq. The strike was successful, Begin won the election by a whisker, and as a bonus the world even came to appreciate the elimination of Saddam's potential nuclear weapons.

Fifteen years later the man Begin defeated, Shimon Peres, found himself as caretaker prime minister and saddled with a electorally inconvenient reputation as an overzealous advocate for peace. First, Peres ordered the killing of Hamas' key bombmaker, leading to a series of ferocious revenge bombings that badly sapped his support. And in April 1996, two months before the vote, he ordered a massive air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon which many considered to be at least partly politically driven. The campaign ended with Hezbollah still in place and Israel halting the operation ignobly after mistakenly killing dozens in a U.N. compound. Peres lost by a whisker.

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