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The Gaza Escalation

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 20, 2012

    The trigger for the renewed escalation in conflict between Israel and Hamas was ostensibly the November 10 rocket attack on an Israeli tank about 200 m from the Gaza border. Four Israeli soldiers were injured in the incident. While the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) initially claimed responsibility, the Islamic Jihad as well as the armed wing of the Hamas was viewed as the more likely perpetrator by Israel. The rocket attack on the tank was itself seen as a response to the death of a teenager in a Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operation in Khan Younis, a Gaza locality, on November 8.

    Israel then responded hard, with a barrage of air strikes from helicopters, aircraft as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and tank fire as part of the ‘Pillar of Defence’. In a major military success, the Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari was killed in an air strike on November 14 in Gaza City. In the aftermath of Jabari’s killing, a Hamas spokesperson charged that Israel had crossed ‘the red line … It’s time to declare war’. Three Israelis were killed a day later in Hamas rocket fire that targeted an apartment building in Kiryat Malakhi.

    A major focus of the Israeli air strikes was the Hamas inventory of longer-range rockets like the 75 km range Iranian-sourced Fajr-5. Reports noted that the entire stockpile of these rockets was eliminated within a few hours of the start of the operations, given that Israeli intelligence has been tracking their locations for many months.

    Even so, Hamas did fire rockets into Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, the first time the Israeli capital was targeted, though without much success. Air raid sirens were also heard in Tel Aviv for the first time in more than two decades since the end of the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein fired Scuds into Tel Aviv localities such as Ramat Gan (where many Iraqi Jews lived).

    The conflict has so far claimed the lives of nearly 80 Palestinians, at least half of them civilians. Over 500 rockets have been fired at Israeli targets from Gaza until November 19, of which nearly half were intercepted by the ‘Iron Dome’ short-range ballistic missile defence system that was developed by the Israeli defence company Rafael with funding support from the United States.

    Israel has deployed four ‘Iron Dome’ systems since the beginning of 2011. Reports noted that it was seeking close to US $700 million from the United States to be able to deploy four more advanced versions of such missile defence systems through 2015. The Obama administration had authorised $205 million for the system in 2011.

    Flare-Up Waiting to Happen

    The current escalation comes on top of the series of violent incidents involving Israel and militant factions in Gaza during the year. On March 9, 2012, Israel killed a top commander of the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) Zuhair al-Qaissi. In the aftermath of al-Qaissi’s killing, more than 100 rockets were fired into southern Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed that Israel would ‘exact a very high price’ from terrorist organisations ‘hiding’ in Gaza. In Israeli counter-strikes, 15 Palestinians were killed.

    Israel held al-Qaissi responsible for the August 2011 terror incidents on Highway 12, north of the Israeli port city of Eilat bordering Egypt, which killed eight Israelis. The PRC was also allegedly behind the June 2006 kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released in October 2011 in return for Israel freeing over 1000 Palestinian prisoners.

    The Israeli decision to release so many prisoners was reflective of the view that the ‘window of opportunity’ to secure Shalit’s release from his more than five years of captivity was fast dwindling due to the uncertainties of the then on-going socio-political churnings in the Arab world. Netanyahu was cited as stating that Shalit would never have been released in the light of the ‘storms’ blowing throughout the Arab world.

    In the light of the August 2011 incident as well as attacks on gas pipelines transporting gas to Israel (which was attacked 14 times between February and April 2012 in the aftermath of the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak), Israel became increasingly apprehensive about the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula. In another terror incident in June 2012, militants killed an Israeli citizen after entering the country through the Sinai.

    In August 2012, 16 Egyptian troops were killed by militants when they ambushed an Egyptian checkpoint. The militants later stormed the Israeli border crossing (Keren Shalom) commandeering an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). The militants were however killed in an Israeli air strike. It is pertinent to note that Netanyahu had mentioned illegal infiltration along Israel’s border with Egypt as one of the key security challenges facing Israel, along with rockets and missiles fired from Gaza (and cyber attacks) in a February 2012 speech to American Jewish leaders at Jerusalem.

    Israel also viewed Hamas’s increasing inventory of longer-range rockets in Gaza amassed through transportation routes in the Sinai and underground tunnels bordering Egypt as a potent security threat. This was especially so given the likelihood of Israeli military moves against Iran and Tehran possibly instigating Hamas to attack Israel as part of its counter strategy. An ‘Operation Cast Lead II’ to comprehensively set back the military capabilities of Hamas and groups like the PRC was therefore being contemplated in earnest in Jerusalem.

    Back to the Future?

    During the 22-day ‘Cast Lead’ operation between December 2008 and January 2009, nearly 1400 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes and ground operations. The operation was wound down exactly a day before Barack Obama was sworn in as the new US president. Analysts noted that the move was geared towards utilising the goodwill of the previous administration as well as starting on a clean page with an administration whose policy proclivities could not be pre-judged. The Bush administration, for instance, was seen as having given a long leash to Israel on its defence and foreign policy agenda, including the Lebanon War of 2006.

    The UN-appointed Goldstone Commission of Enquiry, which submitted its report in September 2009, found fault with both the Israeli government and Palestinian militant groups for undertaking actions during the 2008-09 Gaza war that amounted to ‘crimes against humanity’. Richard Goldstone later wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post on April 4, 2011 acknowledging ongoing Israeli investigations into events that resulted in the death of Palestinian civilians, while bemoaning the fact that Hamas ‘have not conducted any investigations into the launching of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel’. Israel reacted strongly to his statements with PM Netanyahu asserting that ‘Israel did not intentionally harm civilians …’

    With reports noting that the Israeli government had authorised the mobilisation of close to 75,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion, international attention is currently focussed on preventing this possibility. This is especially so in the light of the November 18 Israeli air strike, which led to the death of 11 Palestinian civilians—the single highest death toll in the current operations.

    President Obama has stated that a ground operation was not ‘desirable’ though he has supported the Israeli government’s right to defend its civilian population. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected to meet Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi in Cairo, which has taken the lead to mediate a ceasefire. Morsi has already met with the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and reports noted that an Israeli delegation had also visited Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials to hold discussions on the terms of a ceasefire. Israeli officials insist that they would only agree to a ceasefire if the rocket attacks from Gaza stop. Hamas’s conditions for a ceasefire include a stop to the Israeli policy of ‘targeted assassinations’ as well as the lifting of the economic blockade of Gaza.

    The Road Ahead

    The current escalation between Israel and armed factions in Gaza illustrates starkly the dysfunctional Israel-Palestine peace process as well as the greater roadblocks to surmounting intra-Palestinian differences. The current situation is also a result of the hardening of positions by the principal protagonists – Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Hamas – in the recent past.

    While Israel has not desisted from the construction of settlements even at the expense of deterioration in ties with the United States, the PA went ahead with seeking unilateral recognition of statehood at the UN General Assembly in September 2011, despite vigorous Israeli and US opposition to the move. In the aftermath of the Jordanian-hosted peace talks between Israel and PA in January 2012, Hamas termed them as a ‘farce’ and ‘a waste of time’. It is pertinent to note that this was the first direct contact between the two parties since September 2010 when they met in Washington.

    The future course of events depends on the outcome of the mediatory efforts. If they are successful, it could lead to de-escalation. If not, however, an Israeli ground operation could lead to greater bloodshed and uncertainties. It is pertinent to note that the prevailing geopolitical conditions weigh against any successful Israeli execution of a ground operation. Unlike during Cast Lead, when Hamas was isolated regionally, this time around, it has secured the political backing of Egypt, the Arab League and countries such as Tunisia.

    Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil visited Gaza City on November 17, the first such visit after Hamas came to power. The previous Mubarak regime had cold-shouldered the Hamas. In the aftermath of developments in Syria, Hamas has also secured the support of such Arab states like Qatar, whose Emir pledged $400 million during an October 2012 visit. These developments also highlight the reduction in Iranian political heft with groups like Hamas in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

    The Netanyahu government’s relationship with the Obama administration has also been not stress-free, especially on issues like Iran and Israeli settlement activities. With Israel heading into general elections in January 2013, a further escalation could add to the uncertainties and dent Netanyahu’s current strong political position domestically.