Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s minister of defense, appears to have changed the implicit rules of combat with Hamas this week.
When a lone rocket from Gaza landed in Sderot on Sunday, there were no casualties and no damage. Israel retaliated, firing back several missiles. This was how the tit-for-tat exchange of arms has existed between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for quite some time, each side sending a message while reluctant to escalate the conflict. But later that evening, the IDF launched a major air attack on Hamas targets, signaling that any aggression against Israel will be met with intense force.
During a visit to the north of Israel the next day, Lieberman, a highly controversial choice for his post given his history of provocative statements about Arabs, told journalists of a new tack toward Hamas. “It’s impossible to expect the State of Israel to allow them to arm themselves, to steal money from Gazans,” he said, asserting that Hamas leaders “collect taxes and don’t construct buildings with them, but tunnels. My approach,” he said, “is rebuilding in exchange for demilitarization.”
The strategy has risks beyond the battlefield. Turkey, Israel’s off-again, on-again ally, is a supporter of Hamas, and President Racep Tayip Erdogan criticized Jerusalem for the heavy show of force. Jerusalem and Ankara are about to normalize relations after a long period of tension; a further Israeli show of force against Hamas could jeopardize the rapprochement. Then again, Lieberman, following up on a plan apparently drawn up by his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, may have concluded that it is untenable to allow Hamas to continue to stockpile rockets and possibly re-dig tunnels under Israel without a price to pay other than a full-scale war.
For now, Hamas has backed down, but it is difficult to say whether the group’s takeaway is to be more prudent or escalate the conflict.