Aims of the Israeli Escalation
One of the main objectives the Israelis hope to achieve through this latest escalation is to deal a swift, strong blow to Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In addition, the Israelis hope to foil Palestinian reconciliation and strip away the international legitimacy won by the Palestinian Unity Government. Most of the more than 1,000 Palestinians detained by the Israelis in the West Bank were members of Hamas, including local members and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Importantly, every individual released under the prisoner exchange to release Gilad Shalit (October 2011 ) was put back in prison to complete their lifetime sentences. In addition, Israel targeted the families of those who were detained and the infrastructure in the West Bank—including charities, social and religious services, media outlets, and cultural and economic facilities.
Most of these steps had been taken before Israel attacked the Gaza Strip with its aerial bombardment of a series of targets belonging to Hamas and other factions within the Palestinian resistance in the besieged confines of the Gaza Strip. Just as in the West Bank, Israel forced civilians in the Gaza Strip to “pay the price” for providing support to groups resisting the occupation. In a naked statement of aggression, the Israelis even used physical elimination of resistance activists’ families as a means to silence them and drive home the message that their families would pay the price of their choice to support the resistance.
It has become apparent that the Israeli government is engaged in terrorism, and that it has forced Hamas and the other Palestinian political factions to accept that the agreement to release Shalit, as well as the truce concluded between Hamas and Israel after Israel’s December 2012 attack on Gaza, has been violated. On this latest occasion, the Israelis insist, through indirect channels, that Hamas accept a de-facto calm and cease fire in place of the previous truce agreement that had held until the most recent flare in tensions. The Israelis are, in effect, insisting that Hamas accept the latest infractions of previous agreements as a fait accompli, and accept in principle that the Israelis have the right to violate any future agreements at will. Throughout and prior to recent events, Hamas has honored the truce agreement that it agreed to at the end of 2012, and maintains its right to retaliate. The first reaction to the Israeli infraction of the 2012 truce, however, came in the very limited form of a small number of projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory.
Within the Israeli political landscape, meanwhile, members of the ruling coalition competed to outpace each other in expressing their enmity toward the Palestinians, with Netanyahu’s mini-Cabinet approving an expansion of the assault on the Gaza Strip in order to compel Hamas to accept an unconditional ceasefire, which would change the status quo, which had stood since the end of 2012. After six meetings of the Security Cabinet, the Israeli minister of defense called up 40,000 reserves soldiers in preparation for a wide-scale attack on the Gaza Strip. The Israeli cabinet is also preparing the Israeli public for a drawn-out conflict.
The Palestinian Side
The Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip was unsurprising for Palestinians. The only questions being posed were over the extent and scope of the latest operation in relation to the assaults of 2008 and 2012 . Israel had already failed to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip, just as it had refused to expand the maritime boundaries within which fishermen from the Gaza Strip could catch fish to more than 4.8 kilometers. Similarly, the Israelis refused to allow an increased flow of goods into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Abu Salem crossing. All of these had been accepted as provisions within the 2012 agreement, and all of them had been abrogated by Israel in the run-up to the latest conflict. Even before the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, the Israelis had begun to detain large number of Hamas activists in the West Bank, even those with tenuous links to the Islamist organization. Notwithstanding the fact that Hamas did not claim responsibility for kidnapping the three Israeli settlers, more than 700 Palestinians were detained.
Previously, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been forced by the Israelis to choose between the formation of a unity government with Hamas or peace negotiations with Israel—despite the fact that the latter had been suspended before a Palestinian national reconciliation agreement could be concluded. The new unity government was quickly put under siege, and prevented from beginning work in Gaza. The situation came to a head when the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority declined to pay the monthly salaries of the former civil servants appointed by the Hamas government in Gaza out of a fear of provoking the Israelis. Palestinian banks had similarly refused to receive the transfers for those payments out of the same fear.
In addition to an orchestrated media campaign aimed at defaming Hamas, and indeed Palestinians in general, Egypt has taken an official position in opposition to the present consensus between Fatah and Hamas. The country has even restricted the Rafah Crossing further, bringing the siege on the Gaza Strip to a point beyond where it was under Mubarak. At present, there is an estimated total of 15,000 Palestinians caught in limbo at the Rafah Crossing who are unable to cross the boundary, and are thus unable to travel for reasons of study, work, or medical treatment.
On the Ground: Are There Any Limits to the Escalation?
The latest assault is the culmination of a long, gradual escalation on the part of the Israelis which has lasted for weeks. While the Israeli Air Force had struck out and bombed a variety of targets across the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the other Palestinian factions could only retaliate with rockets with a range no greater than about 40 kilometers. At the time, it appeared that both parties to the conflict had a tacit agreement not to escalate the situation. All of this changed on July 6, 2014.
In the wake of the Israeli transgression against the West Bank, the Israeli military took members of the armed wing of Hamas by surprise with a large-scale bombardment on the southern end of the Gaza Strip. The result was that six members of the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades were killed in one fell swoop, provoking retaliation from Hamas’s military wing, who fired 70 projectiles at Israeli settlements close to the Gaza Strip, including mortars, Qassam rockets and Grad missiles on July 7. This response has been the most intense engagement along the border since the end of hostilities in December 2012. Within hours, Israel announced Operation Protective Edge.
Protective Edge began with a strike against tens of targets in the Gaza Strip as a retaliation to Hamas strikes on southern Israeli towns and cities, such as Sderot, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Niram, Ofakim, and Nitifot. It was only after Israel bombed Palestinian homes that Hamas began to use what it describes as “mid-range” missiles, with the end result being that one-fourth of the Israeli population spent hours in air raid shelters. At the time of writing, a few days after the onset of the Israeli assault, it is now possible to assess the possible future evolution of the present conflict and the implications for both the Gaza Strip and Israel.
The development of the conflict will include an expansion of the list of targets to be bombed by Israel to include the homes of Hamas leaders and military commanders of the Qassam Brigades, rocket launch sites, and charities operated by Hamas. A further likely outcome will be the assassination of Hamas leaders. Israel will also likely threaten a ground invasion, but the risks attendant to such a move—particularly the possibility of Israeli soldiers being killed or captured by Hamas fighters—mean that it will not necessarily carry out the threat. This does not, however, rule out the amassing of thousands of infantry soldiers along the boundary with the Gaza Strip, and the waging of a psychological war against Hamas by moving them back and forth a few hundred meters. In addition, increased capability by Hamas means that Israel could expand the operational capabilities of its Iron Dome missile defense system. Presently, Iron Dome protects those cities which lie within a range of 40 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, but Hamas has demonstrated an ability to strike out at a range of 100 kilometers, bringing towns and cities like Gush Dan, Tel Aviv, and Hadera, and even some of the outskirts of Haifa, into its range.
As for Hamas, the group will use its bolstered and enhanced arsenal to continue to fire rockets at Israel. The number of rockets fired will likely rise to tens of rockets daily, a rate that will bring life in expanding regions of Israeli territory to a halt. Today, there are five million Israelis who live within the range of Hamas’s rocket fire. In addition to rocket fire, Hamas is also expected to carry out armed attacks against Israeli soldiers stationed along the boundaries of the Gaza Strip, making use of armor-piercing mortars. Hamas will also likely be able to impede the actions of Israel’s air force through their use of anti-aircraft artillery. Another prospect is for Hamas to orchestrate non-traditional attacks, such as the amphibious attack on the Zikim Naval Base, and the detonation of a tunnel running beneath the Kerem Abu Salem border crossing to the south of Gaza. The probability of such incidents occurring increases with the prolonging of the Israeli assault.
Hamas was clearly not wasting time between 2011 and 2013: it made use of the post-revolutionary period in Egypt—before the rise of the counterrevolution—to improve the quality of weapons in its arsenal and improve its own rocket-making techniques. Contrary to reports carried by the Israeli media, which does not distinguish between rocket fire from Hamas and that from other Palestinian factions, all of the rockets fired by Hamas, including its longer range armaments, are manufactured in the Gaza Strip.
While this latest assault was imposed on Hamas unwillingly, the group stands to make a number of gains from the conflict. If Hamas comes to be the lone Palestinian faction that engages Israel in the conflict, then the party’s political fortunes will increase. Another objective Hamas can satisfy through this conflict is to end its regional isolation, and even compel the present, post-coup Egyptian regime to mediate a ceasefire. Renewed contacts with the Egyptian government, which have been nonexistent since the ouster of the elected President Mohammed Morsi, would also contribute to lifting the siege on Gaza and the implementation of a reconciliation agreement with Fateh without recourse to Israeli intervention.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian National Authority will attempt to make up for its continued security coordination with the Israeli occupation—which continues even as the Israelis assault the Gaza Strip—by exerting diplomatic pressure on Israel through the pursuance of membership in a number of important international bodies, primarily the International Criminal Court (ICC). Joining the ICC would make it possible for the authority to seek legal redress for Israeli crimes. It can also use this opportunity to marshal increased Arab and regional support for UN sanctions to be placed on Israel for its violation of the terms of the Shalit Release and the attendant truce signed in Gaza in 2012. The Palestinian National Authority will also continue to remain committed to the newly formed national unity government.
Given prevailing regional realities, including the situation in Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere, not to mention the turbulence within the West Bank due to the kidnapping of the Israeli settlers, the timing of Israel’s latest assault does not appear opportune for the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu was driven to take action by a mix of partisan outbidding by his coalition partners, particularly from Foreign Minister Avigdor Leibermann and Minister of Economy Naftali Bennet. Netanyahu has thus avoided accusations of cowardice and of shriveling before Hamas and caving in to centrist coalition partners like Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni.
Finally, in terms of the Egyptian government, this latest Israeli assault resembles the 2008 Gaza War (known as Operation Cast Lead), when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced the beginning of the Israeli attack while standing next to her Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Abu El Gheit. In the case of Operation Protective Edge, Egyptian Minister for Intelligence, Mohammed Al Tuhami, was visiting Tel Aviv on July 7, one day before the assault began. Today, Egypt does not appear to be enthusiastic about the prospect of mediating a cease fire agreement. In fact, the Egyptian government shares Israel’s aim of making the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price, and knows well that Hamas aims to force the Egyptian state to deal with the group. As a result of this Egyptian reluctance, Qatar has been relaying requests for a cessation of hostilities from the United States and the European Union to Hamas.
While it may be premature to define what the outcomes of Operation Protective Edge will be, experience gained from the previous two Israeli assaults, in 2008 and 2012, provides some insight in understanding probable outcomes:
- Continued Israeli aerial bombardment of Hamas targets, as well as the targeting of rocket launch sites. Such a scenario would entail a low number of casualties within the ranks of the Israeli military, but would not produce a decisive end to the battle in Gaza.
- Limited Israeli ground incursions into the Gaza Strip to demonstrate Israel’s determination to lash out at Hamas. The worst feature of such a scenario would be the high casualty rate.
- A full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and the renewed occupation of the area. For obvious reasons, the Israeli military and public are opposed to such an eventuality.
- A unilateral declaration of cease fire by the Israelis. While such a move may improve the country’s image on the world stage, it would leave Israeli aims and objectives unmet, save for the spilling of large amounts of blood.
From the Israeli perspective, the ideal situation would involve the conclusion of a long-term truce mediated by international brokers. Such an agreement, however, would involve fulfilling some of Hamas’s demands. A further possibility, one which is less realistic, would be for Israel to agree to political dialogue with Hamas. While Hamas has proven its ability to withstand the latest assault, this last possibility would require a highly unlikely transformation take place within Israeli politics.
At the time of writing, the situation in Gaza remained open to a number of possibilities, which could change rapidly. Through a gradual escalation of Israeli hostilities, events could reach the point of an all-out land confrontation, an eventuality both sides want to avoid. Another possibility is a ceasefire brokered by regional and wider global power players. The decision to begin this war was not taken in the Gaza Strip or by the Palestinian resistance factions, but the Palestinian resistance factions do stand to gain politically in ways which those who planned the assault did not expect.
* This article was first published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar