Restoring its lost "power of deterrence" has been always Israel's pretext for using excessive force against Palestinians, especially in the besieged Gaza Strip. "Changing the rules of engagement" is another term that we hear from Israeli officials when it comes to dealing with the legitimate resistance factions.
However, what happened yesterday to the east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip was unprecedented. A shocking video shared online shows the body of a slain Palestinian man hanging from the blade of an Israeli military bulldozer after he was shot dead and run over along the Gaza-Israel nominal border fence. The gruesome footage drew strong reactions from Palestinian officials and factions. One senior member of the PLO Executive Committee, Dr Hanan Ashrawi, tweeted: "Too painful to watch let alone experience this unhinged sadistic cruelty of the occupation and persistent Israeli crimes."
Israeli army officials claimed that the man, along another who was wounded but escaped, was suspected of placing an explosive device near the fence, where hundreds of Palestinian protesters have in recent years been killed by Israeli soldiers using excessive force against unarmed civilians. Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has demanded a criminal investigation into the incident and sent a letter to the Israeli Chief Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, detailing that the actions "depicted in the video were viewed as war crimes and blatant violations of international criminal law, and international human rights and humanitarian law."
Twenty-seven-year-old Mohammed Al-Naem was a member of the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Quds Brigade. His corpse was taken away by the bulldozer and is being held by the Israeli army. The incident was witnessed by dozens of unarmed Palestinian civilians and medical teams who gathered to retrieve Al-Naem's body but were shot at by an Israeli tank that crossed into Gaza, injuring three people.
The humiliating theft of the corpse is obviously an example of the new measure introduced by Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett. He intends to keep the bodies of Palestinians from Gaza to use as a bargaining chip to put pressure on Hamas — the de facto government in the enclave — to release the remains of two Israeli soldiers and two others who are presumed to be still alive, after being captured during Israel's 2014 military offensive.
As the anger mounted yesterday, multiple barrages of home-made projectiles were fired from Gaza towards nearby Israeli settlements. The decision to respond was apparently taken by the Joint Operations Room run by Hamas and the other factions.
"The resistance will not hesitate to retaliate to any Israeli attack and we are prepared for any large scale operation," insisted Islamic Jihad spokesman Musa'ab Al-Buraim on a local TV station. "We will defend our people and will not stand idly by."
Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system was deployed hours before the Palestinian response. What's more, dozens of Israeli air strikes have been carried out in the past 24 hours across Gaza, targeting training sites belonging to Islamic Jihad and injuring four people. Two members of the movement were killed in air strikes against a facility near Damascus in Syria. The simultaneous attacks were intended to point the finger at the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad leadership in Syria and Lebanon. The message was clear: Israel's arm can reach anywhere under the pretext of fighting "terrorism".
As usual, mediation efforts by Egypt and the UN have been made to contain the situation but it seems that Israeli threats to wage a large scale operation in Gaza do not hold with the resistance groups for two reasons: First, the threats are always in the context of psychological warfare and changing the rules of engagement. Second, fierce statements to crush the resistance in Gaza serve the electoral interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, former General Benny Gantz of the Blue and White bloc. Gantz seized the opportunity to criticise his opponent's efforts to stop the retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza. "Israel's government is Hamas's hostage," railed Gantz. "[Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh is extorting Netanyahu and he's paying up with suitcases full of dollars." This was a clear reference to Qatar's financial aid to Gaza.
It's no surprise that Palestinian blood in Gaza — an open laboratory for testing Israeli weapons and munitions on live targets — is being used to boost the popularity of election candidates, most notably embattled Netanyahu who failed to form a government in the elections last April and September. Having a third Israeli General Election in less than a year scheduled to take place on 2 March explains the appetite to provoke Palestinians not only in Gaza but also in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Candidates are vying with each to show who can be the hardest against the Palestinians, defy the most international laws and build the most settlements, all with the backing of the Trump administration in Washington. It has become the norm for Palestinians to be used by Israeli politicians and army officials in this way for selfish political gains.
Since the last major Israeli military offensive on Gaza in the summer of 2014, many truces and ceasefires have been mediated, and have been fragile. The Palestinians in the beleaguered territory have been demanding a total lifting of the siege after 13 years, but the demand has been fruitless. Israel's reluctance is a way of buying it more time to impose facts on the ground, and of blackmailing the victims of its siege to keep calm, or Qatar's financial aid will not be allowed through.
As I write, the air is filled with tension as air raid sirens sound across the nominal border and Palestinian projectiles fly over towards Israeli settlements. Every such message to the other is followed by military action. Israel's disproportionate force, though, is clearly not producing the desired effect; there are no white flags being waved in Gaza. Apart from anything else, its 2 million inhabitants have nothing left to lose after living under a brutal military occupation for decades.
Israelis may think that they are dictating the rules of engagement, but they are wrong. The Palestinian resistance groups are doing that by demonstrating that by violating Mohammed Al-Naem's corpse, Israel has abandoned any more high ground that it wants the world to believe it holds. The thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails are no less valuable than Israeli captives in Gaza, and mutilating a corpse on camera is never going to change that.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.