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Israel Returns Fire on Syria as Rockets From Gaza Persist

Israel Faces Fire on Two Fronts With Greater Danger to the South
An Israeli policeman pulls a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip out of the ground on November 12, 2012 in Netivot, Israel. Photographer: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Conflict on Israel’s borders escalated as rockets from the Gaza Strip to the south and a mortar shell from Syria to the north drew retaliatory strikes from Israel’s Defense Forces.

Israeli warplanes struck three targets in Gaza overnight, according to a statement early today from the Israeli Defense Forces. The targets were a weapons storage facility and two sites used to launch rockets into Israel, according to the IDF, which said the action was in retaliation for the more than 115 rockets fired at southern Israeli communities since Nov. 10.

In the North, Israeli tank fire across the Syrian frontier yesterday was aimed at the source of the mortar fire and scored “direct hits,” the army said in an e-mailed statement. The army said that “fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity.”

The clashes involving Gaza have greater potential than Syria border incidents to metastasize into a regional confrontation, according to analysts such as Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group.

While Syria’s internal conflict has raged for 20 months, Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center is among several analysts who said that border spillover isn’t likely to lead to a war involving the Jewish state.

The attacks on two fronts underscored Israel’s vulnerabilities at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking re-election on Jan. 22. Speaking prior to the overnight air strikes, Netanyahu vowed yesterday to escalate military operations to defend the country’s citizens.

‘Unshakeable Commitment’

“I don’t know any of your governments who could accept such a thing,” Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors he took on a visit to the coastal city of Ashkelon, a target of Gaza rocket strikes. “We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon.”

The U.S. reiterated its “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security” yesterday when National Security Adviser Tom Donilon hosted a delegation of senior Israeli officials on Nov. 12 for consultations on Iran, Syria and other regional security issues, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. The meetings were the latest in a series of regular, high-level consultations between the U.S. and Israel, according to the statement.

Netanyahu has faced criticism from political foes such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for strained personal relations with President Barack Obama and for allegedly favoring Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential race.

‘Won’t Hesitate’

Defense Minister Ehud Barak consulted yesterday with senior military commanders in Tel Aviv on the security situation in the south. Barak raised the prospect of a new ground offensive, the first since Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza in 2009 after a three-week military assault that left more than 1,100 Palestinians dead.

“If we are forced to re-enter Gaza in order to strike Hamas and restore security to Israeli residents, we won’t hesitate,” Barak said in Tel Aviv yesterday.

Israel’s Knesset plans to hold a special session on Nov. 15 to discuss security issues, the Jerusalem Post reported.

According to the Israel police, at least 10 rockets were fired from Gaza yesterday, a drop from the more than 100 rockets in the past two days.

The danger of a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, Ottaway warned, is that domestic political pressures will make it almost impossible for Egypt to avoid involvement.

In such a case, the Egyptian leaders “simply cannot not react the way Mubarak did not react,” she said in a telephone interview, referring to Egypt’s ousted leader President Hosni Mubarak.

Cold Peace

Twenty percent of the seats in President Mohamed Mursi’s government went to Salafists, or conservative Muslims, who would object vociferously if Morsi didn’t take action, Ottaway said. The president would also come under intense attack from secularists who strongly distrust Morsi’s government and its religious bent.

“Does this mean they would go to war?” Ottaway said, “I doubt it.” The long-standing Camp David Accords that established Egypt’s peace with Israel could well come under attack though, Ottaway said, leaving “the U.S. really stuck in the middle.”

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said Egypt would work hard to calm both sides before the situation spirals out of control. He added in a telephone interview that “neither Israel nor Hamas have any interest in escalating this to where we were in 2008 or 2009,” when Israel sent its army into Gaza after Hamas took over the territory in 2007.

Quiet Border

Amid concern about Gaza, Israel also faced the prospect that fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to oust him could destabilize its quietest frontier since the 1973 Middle East war.

Barak said Israeli’s military “has been instructed to prevent” the Syrian conflict “from spilling over into our territory. Additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response, exacting a higher price from Syria.

Ottaway, Miller and other analysts, such as Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a Washington policy group, said the Syrian front is far less likely to cause long-term problems.

One factor is Israel’s clear military superiority to Syria’s embattled forces.

“The fact is, for all his bluster, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him were very wary of being in any engagement with Israel,” Alterman said in a telephone interview.

Hitting Hamas

Miller said, “Unless chemical weapons are loosed or used that would force Israelis to respond, neither side has a stake in pushing this to a crisis.”

The latest violence in the south was ignited when Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli patrol along the Gaza Strip border fence on Nov. 10, wounding four soldiers, the army said in a statement. The Israeli military responded with tank shelling and air strikes into Gaza, including a direct hit on a rocket-launching squad, killing six and wounding more than 30, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

“We need to change our response,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Army Radio yesterday. “We need to change it until Hamas says ‘enough.’”

Barak said Israel holds the Islamic Hamas responsible for the attacks from Gaza and the group will pay a “severe and painful” price for them.

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