THE airstrikes that killed Hamas's top military man in Gaza, Ahmad Jabari, and 11 others, including an 11-month-old child, on Nov. 14 were intended to protect his country's civilians, said Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is likely to do the reverse.
Within hours, Hamas had fired 100 rockets, most penetrating Israel's air defences and falling on its towns, killing three people. Israel's commanders are planning their next offensive.
Hamas people debate whether the killing of their military chief crosses the threshold for a resumption of the suicide-bombings they stopped eight years ago that once terrorized Israel's cities. Both fear another war.
Elsewhere, protesters led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's parent movement now rising across the region, are calling to broaden the fight and sever remaining relations. Egypt has already withdrawn its ambassador.
This is not an escalation that either Israel or Gaza wanted. Both their leaders steered stable, cautious ships over the past four years, despite the regionally turbulent times. Under Netanyahu's watch, Israel has been unusually quiet, and, unlike his predecessor, he has launched no major wars. Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza's prime minister, had turned Gaza from a besieged war-ravaged enclave into a would-be Palestinian state under construction, hosting Gulf emirs, Arab princes and ministers.
Jabari was himself credited with turning a guerrilla force reaping mayhem in Israel's cities into a 20,000-strong defence force protecting its (and often Israel's) borders, over which he presided like a chief of staff. (In a sign of the times, he was criticized for spending more time in Cairo's luxury hotels than on the front line. When he escorted Israel's Gilad Shalit to freedom in exchange for that of more than 1,000 Palestinians, Gazans said he looked portly.)
Had it not been for election campaigns in both Israel and the Palestinians' West Bank and Gaza, it would probably not have happened. Earlier skirmishes have been more explosive and deadly. In this latest round, a mortar attack on a jeep on Nov. 10 precipitated an Israeli strike that hit a Gazan funeral killing four civilians, and injuring 40 -- apparently, says an Israeli former military intelligence officer, by mistake.
But both leaders were too challenged by rivals to prove their hawkish bravado is not bluff. Netanyahu's main contender in the January elections, Kadima's Shaul Mofaz, tauned him to "uproot Gaza" in response to rocket fire and to assassinate Hamas leaders, as he did when he was army chief of staff. Haniyeh, who is campaigning to replace the exiled Khaled Meshal as head of Hamas in the movement's internal elections, is similarly under pressure to prove he supports armed "resistance" in deed as well as name, that the trappings of office will not tempt him from the struggle against Israel, and that his vulnerability under the eyes of Israel's drones will give him as much room for manoeuvre as Meshal enjoys in faraway Qatar.
Both also have to stamp their authority over smaller, wilder factions. Feeling fewer constraints out of government, Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militia, posted videos on YouTube of its latest missile-launchers firing rockets at Israel, mocking Hamas for inaction. Foreign security experts say a missile overshot Beersheba, and landed close to Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona. In Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and far-right politician who has previously called for Hamas's liquidation, will further want to stamp his mark on Netanyahu's Likud party, with which he recently merged for the election run-up.
As before Israel's last election in February 2009, the fighting threatens to derail current diplomacy. In December 2008, the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was negotiating via Turkey with Syria's president on a peace deal involving Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on a two-state settlement. His Operation Cast Lead, which killed some 1,400 Gazans, torpedoed both.
This time, the fighting has overshadowed Abbas's efforts to seek recognition as a non-member state at the United Nations. But also as in 2009, the electoral consequences are unpredictable. The Gaza offensive failed to propel Olmert's party, Kadima, to power in 2009. With the outcome of the surge unpredictable, Netanyahu's bid for re-election, which seemed unassailable, may no longer be in the bag.
But even without the elections, Gaza's latest battle was waiting to happen. Both sides have refused to formalize relations and have relied on an indirect, informal and unmonitored ceasefire that had hitherto generally held. Both had different interpretations. Israel claimed the right to launch incursions in a buffer zone it declared inside Gaza with impunity. Hamas vowed to strike back, albeit at military targets, not civilians. But even on their own terms both are in breach. Israel is again carrying out assassinations, and Hamas is again attacking Israeli civilians. And playing to their domestic galleries, neither seems to know how to stop.