Just days away from its third General Election in less than a year, Israel launched another attack on the Gaza Strip which began with a war crime when a military bulldozer dragged the corpse of Mohammed Al-Naim in front of journalists and in broad daylight. The Palestinian resistance responded by firing rockets, and Israel sent its air force to bomb the Gaza Strip, as well as Syria, killing some resistance fighters.
The Israeli “self-defence” is ongoing, as it has been since the start of the Great March of Return protests almost two years ago. The latest attack, though, has political and other implications, both for the Palestinians and Israelis, with developments in the field. The most recent of these is the humanitarian understanding reached between Hamas and Qatar which is intended to ease the effects of the Israeli-led siege of Gaza.
The latest Israeli attack occurred only a few hours after the Qatari Ambassador to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Mohammed Al-Emadi, announced funding for humanitarian projects worth $16 million, after meeting with the Hamas leadership. There has also been Israeli talk about a secret visit by the head of the Mossad spy agency to Doha to request an extension of Qatar’s financial aid to Gaza until the end of this year.
Another development that coincided with this attack is the relative calm experienced in Gaza, given that the security situation in the enclave is not at its best, with 13 escalatory incidents lasting from a few hours to a few days. With deaths on both sides, the truce nearly unravelled and we almost saw a fourth Israeli war on the Palestinians in Gaza but, thanks to last minute international mediation, this was avoided.
The current attack is thus a continuation of Israeli escalation. Palestinian blood needs to be shed during Israeli election campaigns, as politicians vie with one another to demonstrate that they are the “strong man” that the voters need. Moreover, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a number of indictments for fraud and corruption, as usual he tried to divert attention abroad; the Gaza front is the least expensive option in this respect. Hence, it can be said with confidence that the attacks on Gaza and Damascus served Netanyahu’s electoral interests as he fights for his political life.
With Israel returning to an assassination policy when it killed the military commander of Islamic Jihad, Baha Abu Al-Atta, in Gaza last November, threats have been made against other Palestinian leaders in the enclave. However, threats are one thing; carrying them out is something else. Further assassinations may not have the desired effect for Israeli politicians seeking to boost their credibility at home and abroad. Perhaps that is why Israel sent messages to Palestinian organisations in Gaza to explain that the latest escalation was aimed only at Islamic Jihad, so the other factions should not interfere.
This is what happened after Abu Al-Atta was killed, whereas previous Israeli “responses” had targeted all of the factions without exception, albeit mainly Hamas as the de facto government of the Strip. Divide and rule has always been a useful tactic for colonial powers.
It is clear why the Israeli leadership took such an approach; it does not seek a confrontation lasting days or even weeks. This is evidenced by the fact that as soon as Islamic Jihad responded to the assassination, Israel intensified its mediation efforts through Egypt and the UN until a ceasefire was agreed, based on the understandings that prevailed in Gaza before the attack.
Ever since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections and then imposed its control on Gaza in mid-2007, Israel has targeted its military sites whenever a rocket was fired because it believes that anything coming from territory was the movement’s responsibility as the de facto government. Now, though, it is no secret that Israel is seeking to return to dealing with the Palestinian Authority by holding it responsible for any tension, even in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it has basically sent a message to Hamas that if the movement keeps out of the confrontation, then previous humanitarian understandings will prevail.
It is important to say that this Israeli policy was evident in November, and a clear difference emerged between Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the nature of the response to Abu Al-Atta’s assassination. Immediately after the ceasefire, however, the two movements resumed high-level contacts between their political and military leaders. They issued obviously coordinated statements letting Israel know that singling out Islamic Jihad and keeping Hamas on the sidelines could no longer be relied upon.
The Israeli reaction to Gaza’s rockets on this latest occasion can best be described as “hysterical” in terms of security precautions and instructions from the authorities, who told citizens to take refuge in fortified shelters and rooms to avoid deaths and injuries. It is true that the Home Front Command is responsible for protecting all Israelis, but the near-total shutdown of daily life in southern Israel prompted an angry response. Why, people were asking, did the launch of a few relatively simple rockets from Gaza lead to Israeli streets becoming like ghost towns? The Palestinians scented a victory.
What if Hamas had joined this confrontation; what would Israel have looked like then? Why would Israel expose its domestic front, which is equipped with the Iron Dome missile defence system, on which Israel spends billions of dollars to protect itself from multi-range rockets?
No one knows when the current round of Israeli attacks on Gaza will end, although there appears to be a general consensus between the Palestinians and Israelis that they do not want another war. It is likely, therefore, that the current situation will continue until mediators announce a ceasefire and a return to the same fragile truce that has existed in Gaza since the end of the third Israeli military offensive in the summer of 2014. What will happen after the Israeli General Election is hard to say. Whether it is a long-term agreement, or a major, unwanted, war, we simply do not know. A war will, however, be forced upon everyone by circumstances, as nobody really wants one.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.