The engagement with Hamas and the subsequent escalation of force after Hamas's response represents a strategic gamble by the Netanyahu government. While on the tactical level the operation has parallels with Operation Cast Lead, the wider strategic context has changed since 2009.
Negotiations Go Ballistic
Nearly a week has passed since the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari and the commencement of Operation Pillar of Defence by Israel. In this short space of time, Israel has launched some 1,000 airstrikes against targets in Gaza, with Hamas responding with a bombardment of some 500 missiles against targets including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as those settlements in the closer proximity of the Gaza Strip. The severity of the crisis is matched, if not magnified, by the numbers being mobilised 'on the ground'. With 30,000 soldiers and reservists already mobilised, Israeli ministers more than doubled the numbers to 75,000 on Friday - clearly threatening, at least, the invasion of Gaza as being the next phase of the operation.
The marshalling of force, particularly on the Israeli side, suggests a clear purpose to the efforts being undertaken. How this engagement develops is subject to a vast range of permutations; that makes this particular episode a strategic gamble of considerable proportions for the Netanyahu government. While Interior Minister Eli Yishai was quoted by Ha'aretz newspaper that the operation's aim was to 'send Gaza back to the Middle Ages' ( ironically missing the fact that the area was then under Muslim control), the evidence that faces Israeli military and geopolitical planners should suggest a high degree of circumspection from Israeli command.
Tactical Continuity; Strategic Shifts
The last round of conflict between Israel and Hamas (the Gaza War of 2008/9) illustrated that, while Israel can achieve tactical victories against their asymmetrically-poised opponent, the victories are nothing more than pyrrhic. Hamas was devastated and had to endure a difficult period of reorganisation; Gazan society and infrastructure were catastrophically damaged; and the ability of Hamas to bombard Israel was severely curtailed for several years. But Israel's reputation internationally - rarely strong to start with - suffered immensely, particularly because of the numbers of civilians, 1,300, killed by Israeli airstrikes.
This situation continues to be the case, in Operation Pillar of Defence, the use of the vast offensive power available to Israel only serves to further mobilise new generations of Palestinians; who are willing to take the place of those killed.
There is, however, a further and more significant strategic gamble being played by the Netanyahu government - and that is with regard to Israel's place in the region and the willingness of neighbouring powers to stand idly by as Gaza is bombarded. Egypt in particular, with its Ikhwan-dominated government and with its strong bonds of faith and worldview with the Hamas leadership, no longer remains a bystander unwilling to dirty its hands in the affairs of Palestine and Israel. Indeed, Prime Minister Morsi has been energetic in his attempts to pressure Israel into a ceasefire with the Palestinians, mobilising other Arab states and Turkey into a rarely-seen show of unity towards a people often ignored, or used instrumentally, by the deposed regimes of the recent past.
If Israel's 'Phase Two' is to be a ground assault and possible occupation of Gaza, rather than a ceasefire with Hamas, then it will be a strategic gamble that will undoubtedly have a range of unintended consequences in the future. The question is, then, for how long is Netanyahu willing to play the game?
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Senior Associate Fellow