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World Middle East

Is a war with Gaza really imminent?

  • Paula
If you watch foreign news reports, you’ll be forgiven for thinking war between Israel and Hamas is imminent. Each Friday, the sides brace for the inevitable violence to ensue. Last Friday was no exception.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 01, 2018

Thirty-six rockets were fired at Israel by the Islamic Jihad, and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) responded by hitting more than 80 targets overnight. Earlier in the day, five Palestinians were killed in the weekly Gaza border protests, and another died in clashes with soldiers in the West Bank.

Foreign TV networks went into overdrive. A number of South Africans contacted me to ask if war was indeed around the corner. It is. Ask most Israelis. They’ll tell you it’s not a question of if; it’s just a question of when.

But compared to the panic of those living outside the country, in Israel, the mood is resigned, even somewhat nonchalant. While the sense is that war is inevitable, it could be tomorrow, next week, or even next month. No-one was particularly surprised it wasn’t last Friday.

Make no mistake, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want a war, but even he said this week that another large-scale Israeli military operation in Gaza might be unavoidable.

He’s caught on the one hand between his Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, both important coalition partners, pressing him to take action in Gaza. On the other hand, the defence establishment and the IDF sees no point in another military operation.

Lieberman is proposing a harsh one-time blow to be followed by negotiations. Bennett is demanding that the IDF intensify its daily actions against Palestinians trying to breach the Gaza fence or fly incendiary kites into Israel. A lot of it is politicking, and trying to rack up votes ahead of next year’s general election.

But just because Netanyahu says he doesn’t want another war doesn’t mean he might not spring one on everyone. Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 were both surprise Israeli military offensives in Gaza.

They began when the Israeli air force launched an unexpected attack days after violence had abated. This is why some pundits are suggesting that the prime minister is secretly planning another military campaign – or else a ceasefire is closer than ever. Netanyahu will want to resolve the issue before declaring an early election, which most Israelis still expect him to do in the coming weeks.

Egypt is mediating an effort to achieve a long-term calm in the region, and again this week, senior Egyptian intelligence officials met with Hamas leaders in Gaza. Leaders of the militant group are demanding that Israel allow Qatar to transfer $15 million (R220 million) cash every month so that, they say, further escalation is prevented. Israel has routinely refused.

But the talks could be torpedoed by Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-sponsored terror group active in the enclave. It claimed responsibility for last Friday’s rocket attacks. Although it later announced a ceasefire, it said it would “be committed to the deal as long as Israel is committed”. In the past, such ceasefires haven’t proven to mean much.

The IDF insists the group was behaving on orders from Tehran. Also, speculation is rife that the rockets were a signal to Egypt about dissatisfaction that the Islamic Jihad was not part of the talks.

It also seems possible that Iran is concerned about the progress being made in those negotiations. Especially considering that the flare-up came amid reports that the Egyptians had finally reached an understanding with Hamas to restore calm in Gaza. Tehran benefits from the violence. It makes it easier for it to spread its influence.

Also, amid Friday’s flare up, Netanyahu was visiting Oman, a Gulf state neighbouring Iran, with which Jerusalem has no official diplomatic relations.

The last time an Israeli prime minister visited that country was in 1996. Following the meeting, Oman publicly called on Middle East countries to accept the Jewish state. This coming week, the Israeli transportation minister will travel there.

And in another first, the Israeli national anthem Hatikva was played in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf state. This was after Israeli athletes won medals in the Judo Grand Competition there. For years, Israelis have participated in events in the Gulf, but organisers have often made their participation conditional on not displaying national symbols.

It certainly seems as though relations between Israel and the Gulf countries are thawing, primarily over a shared distrust of Iran, and its push for regional hegemony. Tehran, in return, is angry, and the supposed call to action for Islamic Jihad makes sense in this context.

But it’s not just about Israel building friends among Iran’s adversaries. Tehran wants to destroy any kind of peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. It believes that a deal would weaken its influence on the latter, while at the same time give the Americans more leverage in the region.

On 4 November, the next wave of American sanctions against Iran goes into effect, and the country is struggling to cope economically.

Islamic Jihad is the second largest and strongest military organisation in Gaza. It usually works in co-ordination with Hamas, but unlike Hamas – which also receives financial support from Tehran – Islamic Jihad receives not just money and weapons, but orders.

The IDF says it holds Hamas responsible for the rocket fire as it is in control of Gaza, and it’s up to Hamas to restrain the group.

But aside from statements, it’s unlikely Israel, or Netanyahu, will do much more – for now.

As long as the prime minister can hold off the hawks in his coalition, and the Egyptian negotiations continue, he can buy time, and decide on his terms, and on his clock, when the next Gaza war will erupt.

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