Palestinian militants have been firing mortars and home-made rockets from Gaza since 2002, long before the Israeli disengagement. In the 20 months between the disengagement in September 2005 and Hamas' consolidation of control in June 2007 (when it defeated Fatah aligned security forces), around 2,700 rockets were fired into Israel, killing 4 Israeli civilians. It is widely accepted both that these indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli towns such as Sderot are wrong and inexcusable, and that Israeli attacks-such as the ones yesterday that killed hundreds in a few hours-are on an entirely different scale.
However, Israel's past military responses to the rocket threat, although massively disproportionate, have also been largely ineffective. It demolished buildings and levelled large areas of farm land in the northern part of Gaza to reduce the cover available for rocket crews. It fired over 14,000 artillery shells in 2006, killing 59 Palestinian civilians in the process, in what was framed as a preventive tactic to make it more difficult for rocket crews to operate. It launched major and prolonged incursions such as Operation Summer Rains in June 2006, devastating infrastructure such as the Gaza power station and killing hundreds. But still rocket fire continued, and in fact intensified in response to any increases in Israeli hostilities.
Instead, the only effective way of preventing rocket fire has been ceasefires, such as the one Hamas (but not other factions such as Islamic Jihad) observed from November 26th 2006 to April 24th 2007. Since Hamas increased its control of Gaza in June 2007 it has been in a stronger position to compel other factions to comply with truces, and hence was able to halt all rocket fire from June 19th 2008 until Israel violated the ceasefire on November 4th with a raid that killed 6 Hamas members. Israel's current campaign against the police in Gaza and other Hamas security infrastructure is unlikely to damage the capability of rocket crews - small autonomous units that are not tied to particular locations - but it could reduce Hamas' ability to enforce future ceasefires. Meanwhile, Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bett, told a cabinet meeting on December 21st that he believed Hamas was willing to renew the ceasefire, and wanted to extended it to the West Bank and to include an end to the siege brought about by Israel's near-total closure of Gaza's borders (a siege which the UN has long called to be lifted on humanitarian grounds).
Given that past experience strongly suggests that military action is ineffective, and that there were grounds to negotiate an extension of the ceasefire, why did Israel launch another military assault? The BBC's Katya Adler asks insightfully: "Does it really believe it can stop the rocket fire from Gaza when previous Israeli governments have tried and failed, using every military means?" She notes in answer that: "Israel's politicians are pursuing a parallel campaign, too - an electoral one...The Israeli public has a generally low opinion about how their government has handled what they call "Hamastan" - Hamas-controlled Gaza. Until it started talking tough, the hawkish opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, was leading in the polls. Now the gap has narrowed."
While most of the foreign media has not yet explored this issue, the Israeli media is certainly aware of the political significance of a major military campaign only weeks before elections (on February 10th) in which the governing coalition had been expected to lose power. The Jerusalem Post quotes officials from Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Labour Party as saying that the war is Barak's chance to remind voters "that we need someone with his experience, someone sane to be in power in these crazy times." Recent polls have suggested that the Labour party will receive less than 10% of the vote, falling from its current place as the second largest party represented in the Knesset to possibly fifth or sixth place, which would be its worst ever result. The Jerusalem Post also notes that if the election is delayed (as it was in 1973 due to the Yom Kippur War) as a result of the conflict, Mr Barak and the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are the two men who stand to benefit most. Mr Olmert may well want a legacy beyond the corruption charges which are forcing him to step down after the next election. Similarly, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, has the opportunity to strengthen her hawkish credentials as she defends Israel's actions to the world, and thereby bolster her party Kadima, which has been at second place in the polls, lagging behind Mr Netanyahu's Likud party.
Electoral politics are not the whole story. There are plenty of people in the Israeli military who have, irrespective of their party-political preferences, been looking for an opportunity for a major assault on Gaza since June 2007, and the formal end of the ceasefire on December 18th did provide a proximate excuse for an assault. However, it is also highly unlikely that the ministers who issued the orders for Saturday's attack did not do so without at least one eye on February 10th. As the body count increases in Gaza, and probably also among Israelis, the world needs to carefully examine the motives of Israel's leaders, while calling for an immediate end to hostilities.