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World Middle East

Déjà vu to the last Gaza war… and then it stopped

  • Paula
Last Friday night, it looked as if another Gaza war was upon us. Israel launched a massive airstrike, hitting more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters. Four Palestinians – of which Hamas acknowledged three as its fighters – were killed.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 26, 2018

A few days earlier, the air force had already conducted its largest assault on Gaza since the last war between the sides in 2014. It was with a strong sense of déjà vu that journalists were rushing to the Israel-Gaza border. But by midnight it was over.

The flare-up was eerie. A Friday deadline for Hamas to cease flying arson kites and balloons into Israel had come and gone, with no let-up in the provocations. Somehow the massive air response seemed too strong a punishment.

At about 18:00, a journalist from Gaza phoned to ask me what Israeli media were reporting about an Israeli soldier who had been badly injured. The answer was nothing. And yet in Gaza rumours were rife that a soldier had been hit.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had happened, especially as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Tel Aviv holding two emergency meetings with his top political and security brass.

Hours later, the army issued a statement. Indeed, the Gaza rumours turned out to be accurate. A 21-year-old infantry soldier, Sergeant Aviv Levi, had been shot by a Palestinian sniper and declared dead on arrival at hospital. His parents and two siblings had been holidaying in Italy and it took a while to notify them before details could be made public.

Levi was the first IDF fatality on the Gaza front since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

And yet despite the initial hard-hitting airstrikes, for now, war seems to have been averted.

Hamas was quick to accept an Egyptian and United Nations-brokered midnight ceasefire and the border has been quiet this week. But in reality, the circumstances that provoked that flare-up have not changed and the status quo was simply reinstated.

Israel and Hamas have already fought three wars in the past decade and neither wants another full-blown confrontation. There isn’t much either side will gain and both are aware of the risks of the situation escalating out of control.

Had Israel been gunning for war, it would have targeted senior Hamas officials in its airstrikes and not only bombed battalion headquarters. Had Hamas wanted one, it would have launched rockets at Israel even after coming under fire.

As it was, Hamas fired three projectiles before the airstrikes began.

Hamas told mediators it would act to reduce the kite bombs, but claimed this would take time since some of the launchers belong to groups who do not take orders from them.

Israel disputes this and points out that during one of its attacks last week on a cell launching kites, a member of Hamas’s military wing was killed. This showed Israel that Hamas both encourages and participates in the arson strikes.

But there are indications that the sniper who killed Levi was not initially sanctioned by Hamas because Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the group’s political wing, was near the border when the army retaliated and Hamas fighters were in their operational centres. Had they anticipated the death of a soldier and the obvious Israeli reaction, they would presumably have gone into hiding.

But still Hamas later released a picture of the sniper who killed Levi – claiming he was a member of their armed wing. The group seems to have caught itself in a bind.

The international support for its popular protest over the past three months in part relied on claims that Palestinian protesters coming under fire from Israeli soldiers were unarmed. For some, the group has now lost that advantage by introducing snipers into the fold.

Those protests were important for Hamas because they kept Gaza in the consciousness of the international – and Israeli – communities. But as part of the ceasefire terms Hamas agreed to, it has to stop the demonstrations from continuing. We’ll see this Friday if that happens or not.

Hamas is also fighting for political legitimacy from among its own population and its traditional backers. Confronting Israel like it has done in the past few weeks keeps it relevant.

It has increasingly lost support in the Arab world. Qatar, a traditional Hamas supporter, faces accusations that it supports radical Islamist terrorists. The Gulf States ceased their support of the group a long time ago and Egypt sees Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which it opposes.

This has left non-Arab countries offering support, like Turkey and Iran, which has only further complicated Hamas’s relationship with Arab states.

At the same time, Hamas has failed to provide basic services like water and electricity to its population in Gaza, instead focusing its money and resources on strengthening its military wing. This has caused the Palestinian Authority, headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to reduce funds to the enclave and to view Hamas as an enemy.

Add to this the new restrictions Israel imposed on Gaza earlier this month when it closed Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza (and which it partially re-opened on Tuesday) in response to the arson kites and balloons.

That served to further tighten the economic noose Gazans are facing, leaving Hamas looking for ways to put pressure on Israel to strengthen its own standing. The easy answer that always comes up is to attack the Jewish state in some form or another. But not so that it leads to war.

And so Hamas and Israel remain in a dangerous paralysis. The very issues that caused Hamas to escalate tensions in the first place – Gaza’s isolation and faltering economy – are still in place, with no solution seemingly in sight. This means the conflict could flare up at any time.

Sadly, it isn’t a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’ that will happen, because for as long as the status quo remains, and for as long as there is no significant change in the dismal reality of Hamas-ruled Gaza, despite the best mediation efforts, journalists will again be rushing to the Israel-Gaza border.

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