TEL AVIV — Israel and the Gaza Strip are back at war, exchanging fire across the volatile frontier in the most serious escalation since the 2014 conflict. On the face of it this is nothing new: the last seven months have witnessed weekly border clashes and periodic flare-ups quickly contained.
The difference now, aside from the intensity of the ongoing rocket fire into southern Israel and airstrikes into Gaza, is that 48 hours earlier it all looked very different. Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Strip, were cautiously on their way to negotiating a longer-term ceasefire.
The prospects of such an agreement are quickly dissipating in direct proportion to the level of violence deployed—just as both sides know that yet another round of hostilities will resolve nothing.
Speaking to reporters in Paris on Armistice Day this weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a direct line to the heedless carnage of World War One when discussing the Gaza Strip. “Every war draws casualties, I’m not afraid of war if it’s necessary, but I want to avoid it when it’s not necessary, when I assess that another war will only bring us back to the conditions” prior to the start of the Gaza border clashes in late March.
Netanyahu’s remarks were startlingly similar to those made by Hamas’ Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar last month. “The truth is that a new war is in no one’s interest,” Sinwar told a visiting Italian journalist. “Having said that, if we will be attacked, that's obvious, we will defend ourselves. … And we will have a new war. But then, in a year, you will be here again. And again I will be here to say: war achieves nothing."
THE BEST LAID PLANS of mice, men, Netanyahu and Sinwar notwithstanding, the current round began inadvertently Sunday night when an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) special operations raid into Gaza went awry. The small undercover force, inside the hostile territory on an intelligence mission, was exposed by a Hamas patrol. A firefight ensued, with heavy Israeli air power called in to cover the extraction. When the dust settled an Israeli lieutenant colonel and seven Palestinian militants were dead, including a local commander from the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military arm.
The Palestinian response came yesterday afternoon. Hamas fired an anti-tank missile across the Israel-Gaza border, striking an idling Israeli bus. According to Israeli military sources and a video later released by Hamas, the bus, while civilian, had just dropped off several dozen IDF personnel; one soldier was severely injured. This attack from Gaza, the likes of which haven’t been seen for years, was only the opening salvo.
Gaza’s militant factions immediately began firing rockets and mortars into southern Israel – as of this writing over 400 projectiles in less than a day of relentless barrages, sending area residents into bomb shelters, killing one (actually a Palestinian from the West Bank) and seriously injuring two.
The Iron Dome rocket defense system, while effectively intercepting over 100 projectiles, “is not hermetic,” according to IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, especially given “such massive amounts of rockets.”
For its part, Israel has responded with air, tank and naval strikes into Gaza, targeting over 100 different sites, including tunnels, weapons storage facilities, command positions, and on four occasions large multi-story buildings used, per the IDF, as headquarters for Hamas security organs as well as its television channel. Six Palestinians have been reported killed so far in these attacks.
Both sides are now threatening escalation, as is typical. Senior Israeli military officers last night stated that Hamas “had crossed a red line” and that further rocket fire would lead “Gaza to destruction.” The IDF has also made a show of sending additional forces – infantry and armor – to the Gaza border region, with Netanyahu convening his security cabinet to weigh next steps. Hamas has threatened to “expand the circle of fire,” as Abu Obeida, the Qassam Brigades spokesman, put it, bringing all of southern – and possibly central – Israel under bombardment.
DESPITE THE RHETORIC, Israel and Hamas are still exhibiting some restraint, with an eye, possibly, to containing the violence. The Gazan factions are still only deploying short-range rockets and heavy mortars; the bigger southern cities of Beer Sheva and Ashdod, to say nothing of Tel Aviv, have yet to be fired on. The IDF, on several occasions, is believed to have given early warning ahead of certain airstrikes, allowing the evacuation of the target. Unlike previous rounds of fighting, the Kerem Shalom crossing connecting Gaza to Israel is still functioning: food, humanitarian supplies, fuel and gas are being allowed to enter.
This fact more than any other underlines the real political conundrum surrounding Gaza – not only over the past few days but over the past few years.
The recent escalation came just days after $15 million in cash from Qatar was moved into Gaza, primarily for the payment of salaries to Hamas’ civil servants (Netanyahu approved it). A week prior Qatari-subsidized fuel entered the territory, increasing the amount of electricity available per day for residents from a paltry four hours to sixteen and more. These steps, the likes of which the besieged coastal enclave has been crying out for, came as part of the ongoing Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks – negotiated indirectly through Egyptian intelligence and the United Nations special envoy to the region.
Cash, fuel, and other easing measures (expanded fishing zones, additional international aid projects) were to the form the first stage of the agreement – what Israel terms “calm” and a return, as mentioned by Netanyahu in Paris, to the situation prior to March of this year. Avoiding humanitarian disaster was also imperative in a territory under Israeli (and Egyptian) blockade for 11 years, ever since the militant Hamas seized power. In return, Israel expected Hamas to stop with the violent border clashes and arson kites, to say nothing of the sporadic rocket fire.
SOME ON THE ISRAELI RIGHT pointed out, with reason, that this was extortion, “protection money” being paid to a terrorist organization simply to stay quiet. Yet Netanyahu to his credit held the line, and went ahead with these first tentative steps because the alternative – another round of conflict, an “unnecessary war,” a bloody re-occupation of Gaza – was unpalatable and extremely costly. (In this decision, the Israeli security establishment overwhelmingly supported Netanyahu.)
Despite the criticism from the right, the plan was approved. And it seemed to be working. The violence on the Israel-Gaza frontier had somewhat diminished in recent weeks, up until the botched IDF commando raid, the Hamas anti-tank missile attack, and the subsequent escalation.
The strategic and humanitarian impulses that drove Israel and Hamas into these talks to start with are still very much in place. Yet it’s an open question whether Netanyahu can now withstand political pressure from his right-wing base for a still more forceful response. The prevailing view for many in Israel is that Hamas is no longer deterred – that the group believes, again with good reason, that the Netanyahu government will do anything to avoid a full-scale engagement.
Hamas has also learned under Sinwar’s direction these past seven months that violence can be a negotiating tool, calibrated to extract concessions from the enemy. Hamas, it’s worth noting, has promised its Gazan subjects nothing less than the full repeal of “the siege” – a hugely complicated task that goes well beyond the pre-March “calm” Netanyahu has touted.
Unsurprisingly, early Tuesday Hamas officials were already calling for Egypt to mediate a halt to the hostilities, adding that “if Israel stops firing then we will stop firing.” If reports are to be believed, the Israeli government has rejected these entreaties. The prospect of miscalculation is immense.
“Leaders need to do, to find a way to return security, to avoid humanitarian collapse and avoid needless wars,” Netanyahu said in Paris just a few days ago, 100 years after the end of a conflict that defined reckless leadership. “This is what I’m doing. Will it succeed? It’s too early to say.”