Once again, war approached. The radio announced funerals of terror victims, including two sisters and their husbands. Politicians competed at bellicosity. Rumors drifted through quiet weekend conversations in Jerusalem synagogues that soldiers in combat units were packing their gear to go south, to Gaza. Again.
The impulse to loose the brigades was poorly considered but not insane. Terror makes people of otherwise measured moods want to attack, to break things and people. The band of terrorists, allegedly from Gaza's Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), that came out of the Sinai desert last Thursday opened fire on cars and buses that were passing by chance on the highway to the beach town of Eilat. They killed six Israeli civilians and two soldiers and left dozens wounded.
From there, the cycle built with its seemingly invincible inevitability: An Israeli jet fired a missile at precisely the building in the Gaza Strip where five leaders of the PRC were meeting and killed them. The radical factions in Gaza -- the PRC and Islamic Jihad -- followed the instinct of revenge. The range of their rockets has grown. By some reports, their weaponry includes smuggled spoils of Libya's collapse. The area of southern Israel where rockets can fall into backyards, schools, and malls includes major cities. On Sunday night, a Grad missile from Gaza struck a neighborhood of Beersheba and killed a man.
The reflex of politicians is to show they share the pain by promising payback. Amram Mitzna, the ex-Labor Party leader trying to make a comeback, said Israel must prove to Hamas, the Islamic movement that rules Gaza, that it "will pay an unbearable price" for the rocket fire. Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, the centrist opposition party, said that Israel must cause Hamas's collapse. Silvan Shalom, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief rival in the ruling Likud, declared: "I'm not afraid of the words 'ground operation,'" implying a repeat of Israel's 2009 invasion of Gaza.
Then there was an unexpected paroxysm of restraint. Netanyahu told his cabinet he would not rush into a new military campaign. Fragile ceasefires were declared and fell apart. Nonetheless, the effort to stop the escalation requires explanation.
Decision-makers in both Israel and Gaza, it appears, are caught between the desire to have the last word, to fire the last shot, and knowing that they have nothing to gain by returning to battle. Besides that, the year of Arab uprisings may have put more missiles on the black market, but it has also made Egypt a less reliable -- and therefore more influential -- partner for both Israel and Hamas. The transitional rulers of Egypt are demanding quiet. There's half a chance they will get it.
In one respect, the crisis has been tied too blithely to the Arab revolutions: The fall of the Mubarak regime did not create the power vacuum in the Sinai that allowed the terrorists to strike. The Sinai is barren, mountainous territory that's difficult to control -- ironically, all the more so because the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 drastically limits the Egyptian military presence there, as Ben-Gurion University professor Yoram Meital points out. For several years, Meital says, security experts have warned that "militant jihad organizations" are moving into the Sinai. Even before the Eilat attack, Israel had agreed to let Egypt send more troops into the region.
The PRC apparently attacked from Sinai because Hamas has "tried to hobble" the group inside Gaza, says Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, a scholar of Palestinian politics. The PRC is a loose coalition of Palestinian militants who bolted either Hamas or Fatah, the main Palestinian nationalist organization. They resent the fact that both major movements are governing territory and engaging in politics rather than sticking to armed struggle, Klein explains.
The PRC militants are the latest unbending revolutionaries to bedevil Palestinian politics. And just as Yasser Arafat made the mistake of not disarming Hamas when he established the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has failed to disarm the PRC as it took control of Gaza. Without a monopoly on the use of force, Hamas also lacks a monopoly on foreign policy.
With the Eilat attack, the PRC followed the old terrorist method of trying to goad others into war. The rocket fire fits that method. No Israeli government, even a more moderate one than Netanyahu's, can let an ever-larger part of the country become a war zone. But the political clamor for military action doesn't add up to a strategy. Destroying the Hamas government would either leave Gaza controlled by no one or force Israel to reoccupy it and face endless guerilla warfare. Either way, the militants would bring more missiles out of the basements. Responding in parliament to Kadima criticism, cabinet member Michael Eitan asked, "Should Netanyahu act like [Kadima prime minister Ehud] Olmert at the start of the Lebanon War?" The official inquiry into the mistakes of that war blasted Olmert for responding militarily to a Hezbollah attack from Lebanon without deciding on goals or figuring out how an offensive would achieve those goals.
Inside Gaza, says Meital, Hamas has also been under "tremendous pressure" from an angry public to escalate. But the Islamic movement has actually created a working regime in Gaza -- a non-state, recognized by no one but still managing a piece of territory. Its hold on Gaza makes it a player in wider Palestinian politics. A war could destroy its accomplishment.
Good sense, though, would stand even less a chance were it not for Egyptian pressure. The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has had immense benefits for both countries, freeing them of military burdens and allowing their economies to develop. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's fall wants to preserve the peace agreement. Unlike Mubarak, it has to pay attention to public opinion -- and the Egyptian public is strongly pro-Palestinian. An Israeli government that began a military campaign in Gaza, says Meital, "endangers the peace treaty." According to the usual semi-reliable leaks General Hussein Tantawi, head of Egyptian military council, has conveyed that message directly to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Egypt is also leaning on Hamas to crack down and stop the rocket fire. Egypt is Gaza's tie to the outside world, and in a year of drastic changes, Hamas is estranged from its former patrons in Syria and Iran. This gives Egypt more leverage.
In the best case, if a ceasefire finally holds, it will be a short-term fix. Hamas still needs to disarm its pyromaniac rivals in Gaza. It could escape its isolation if it wiggled free of outdated ideology and recognized Israel. Israel, for its part, could put much more diplomatic pressure on Hamas -- and improve its ties with Egypt - if Netanyahu was willing to negotiate realistically for a two-state settlement.
Since none of these things is about to happen, Egypt is left to try to impose calm. Strangely enough, its current rulers are making that effort because they are not absolutely in control, because the public now matters, because the old Middle Eastern game is over and the new one hasn't yet been designed.