ANALYSIS: Gaza Airstrikes Heavier Than Expected

YERUSHALAYIM -

The scale of the Israeli Air Force retaliatory strike on Hamas after a Gaza rocket landed in Sderot on Sunday took many by surprise, on both sides of the border.

Over a two-hour period on Sunday night, the northern Gaza Strip shook with explosions as the IAF conducted approximately 50 strikes against Hamas military targets, according to a military source cited by the Times of Israel. Palestinian media reported two to five people lightly injured.

IDF officials themselves characterized the air operation as “exceptional” or “irregular,” though they denied Hamas claims that Israel was attempting to “create a new status quo in the Gaza Strip.”

Normally, a single rocket launching against Israel — like the one on Sunday — draws a single air force response, in tit-for-tat fashion, to make the Gaza terrorists pay for any hostile act. Sunday night’s bombardment, which could be heard across the border in southern Israeli communities, raised the question of why such a strong response?

While it is true that the attack was a nearmiss, the rocket landing in the middle of a residential area where b’chasdei Hashem, there were no injuries, it was still not the sort of thing that has in the past prompted such a strong response.

It has been suggested that airstrikes performed an operational, and not only a deterrent, function — though this has not been confirmed by military sources.

But when asking what changed, the obvious answer for many observers is the identity of the person now in charge of Israel’s Defense Ministry — Avigdor Liberman.

Liberman appeared to have turned in his tough-talking, right-wing persona for a moderate, diplomatic one upon his appointment as defense minister; but now it appears that the old Liberman never went away.

The Yisrael Beytenu leader initially refused to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition a year and a half ago in part because he said that the latter had failed to eliminate the threat from Hamas. In his new position, Liberman has a lot more to say about how Israel responds to acts of war originating from across the border in Gaza.

It may well be that the events of Sunday mark a new policy, which replaces the tit-for-tat responses of the past with tougher, more punishing retaliations, designed to deter Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza from any violations of the ceasefire.

Although IDF spokesman Lieut. Col. Peter Lerner said on Sunday that the military “remains committed to the stability of the region and operated in order to bring quiet to the people of southern Israel,” he also noted that “when terrorists in Hamas’s Gaza Strip, driven by a radical agenda based on hatred, attack people in the middle of the summer vacation, their intentions are clear — to inflict pain, cause fear and to terrorize.”

And that is something that Israel’s defense minister may not be willing to overlook. Time will tell.