Battle over? Few even know when it began

Soldiers next to the school bus which was hit by a rocket at the Sa’ad Juntion, badly injuring two people

Soldiers next to the school bus which was hit by a rocket at the Sa’ad Juntion, badly injuring two people

Establishing the time frame of the latest round of hostilities around the Gaza Strip appears simple. They began a week ago, on Thursday afternoon, when an advanced anti-tank missile slammed into a school bus at the Sa'ad Junction, 3km from the Gaza border. If the bus had not just disgorged its load of children three minutes earlier, casualties would have been much higher than the wounded driver and sole passenger, who is still in a critical condition. And as a senior IDF officer said: "We would have been now in a totally different place, with forces in Gaza on the ground." As it is, the direct targeting of civilians was serious enough: "A red line has been crossed, that is the message Hamas has to understand now."

To reinforce that message, the IDF unleashed the widest and deadliest wave of airstrikes since the end of Operation Cast Lead 25 months ago, targeting missile launch teams, arms depots, command posts and a number of mid-level commanders of Hamas's military wing. Twenty Palestinians were killed, including at least two civilians.

Meanwhile, in the space of three days, Hamas and other Palestinian organisations launched over 130 mortar bombs and rockets at Israeli towns and villages around the Strip.

The damage was negligible, but would have been considerably worse if it were not for the Iron Dome missile defence system that, in its first operational deployment, intercepted and destroyed eight Grad missiles launched at Ashkelon and Beer Sheva.

And then, by Sunday evening, it was all over. Through various channels, the political leadership of Hamas assured Israel that it had reined in its military wing. Calm has returned, hopefully at least for the duration of the Pesach holiday.

But the idea that this latest skirmish began on Thursday is potentially misleading. The escalation could just as well be said to have begun five and a half days earlier when, in a joint air force-Shin Bet operation, Israel killed from the air three Hamas operatives who were apparently planning to kidnap Israeli tourists in Sinai over Pesach. The missile fired at the bus was a revenge for that attack. And the lull that began on Monday could prove extremely short, so temporary as not to count as a real break in hostilities. Next time around, both sides will almost certainly ratchet up their actions, as they did this round.

The Iron Dome has given Israel a little breathing space

Nothing has changed on the ground. Hamas still finds itself with a restive military wing, eager to prove that it has not given up on the armed struggle and a political leadership worried that a premature outbreak of hostilities could shake its hold on the nascent Gaza statelet.

The Netanyahu government is also at an impasse. Diplomatically it is in a state of near-siege, making it very difficult to embark on a major military excursion, while public feeling at home allows it very little leeway for restraint if Hamas provokes it once again.

The success of the Iron Dome, which achieved the first operational interception of a missile anywhere in the world, has given Israel's leadership a little breathing space at home. However, the system can still achieve only limited coverage with just two batteries. New batteries will only be ready in 2013, and Hamas have proved capable of exploiting Israel's weaker spots.

For now, both sides will be content with a quiet Pesach. Neither Jews nor Muslims have much hope for more than that.

    Last updated: 12:11pm, April 14 2011