It is perhaps unique to this context that both sides of the current flare-up—the Israeli army and Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip—can simultaneously escalate their attacks on each other while negotiating a delicate ceasefire.
Such has been the case in recent days, leaving many on both sides wondering if the heavier blows exchanged are the final ones before a truce, or the opening salvos of a new war.
On Thursday, Israeli fighter jets flattened a five-story building west of Gaza City, injuring 18 people according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The army alleges that the building was used as a headquarters for Hamas’ internal security service. This, the army declared, was in response to a Hamas rocket attack on the southern Israeli city of Beersheba earlier in the day.
It was the first time since the 5-day conflict in 2014 that Beersheba, a major urban center about 25 miles from the enclave, was targeted by projectiles fired from Gaza.
Ronen Manelis, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said later Thursday that the bombing of the high-rise building in broad daylight was intended to send “a message to Hamas that as long as their choice of terror continues, the IDF’s [Israeli Defense Forces] responses will increase and become more powerful.”
Israeli authorities said that over 200 projectiles were launched at Israeli communities between Wednesday night and Thursday. Most of them hit open areas while the Iron Dome defense system destroyed about 25 rockets. Some projectiles, however, managed to penetrate defense systems and exploded in civilian areas, injuring several Israelis.
The rocket and mortar fire from Gaza then prompted waves of Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardments against what the IDF described as military targets (about 150 in total) in the Strip. The Gaza Health Ministry reported that the Israeli strikes killed three and wounded six other Palestinians.
Meanwhile, incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza continued to scorch lands inside Israel. Thus far, over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, resulting in millions of dollars in damages, according to Israeli officials.
On Friday, around 9,000 Palestinian protesters gathered in five locations along Gaza’s border with Israel, with many throwing stones, makeshift bombs and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers.
The Friday protests have been ongoing since March 30, when the first “March of Return” installment was held. The weekly demonstrations have resulted in over 100 Palestinian deaths by live Israeli fire. Many of those killed, the IDF alleges, were trying to breach the border fence.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said before the weekly government meeting that Israel is “in the midst of a campaign against the terror [Hamas] in Gaza.
“Our demand is clear—a total cease-fire,” Netanyahu
continued. “So far, we have destroyed hundreds of Hamas military targets. With every round of attacks, the IDF exacts a heavy price from Hamas. I will not reveal our operational plans, but they are ready. Our goal is to restore peace to the residents of the south and the surrounding areas. This goal will be achieved in full.”
An Egyptian official claimed on Thursday night that a cease-fire deal had been reached between the two sides. A senior Israeli source, however, quickly denied the report.
Meanwhile, Egypt and the United Nations have continued their efforts to reach a truce deal that would include much-needed economic development in Gaza, while calling for reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah faction.
As hostilities spiked last week, senior Israeli officials have said more troops are being deployed to the southern front, adding that the government could start evacuating communities near the enclave in preparation for a military operation. But for now, they stated, “quiet will be met by quiet.”
Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that another war is not in the interest of either side.
He explained that if Israel seizes on a war to eradicate Hamas, an option often raised by high-ranking Israeli officials, the unknowns outweigh the perceived benefits.
“How long this could last and who could take over after Hamas—the list of volunteers is woefully short—is all unclear. If Israel doesn’t win, it then risks returning to an inconclusive cycle. What would be the point? Meanwhile, Israel would pay for it by suffering a major economic disruption.
“I’ve been thinking of Palestinian behavior in the Gaza Strip as parents sending their children into the cage to prod the lion to see what happens," he elaborated. "That is the level of irrationality—of trying to see at what point the Israelis will finally get angry and hit the Palestinians so hard that they will finally learn a lesson.”
Maurice Hirsch, a former IDF prosecutor, explained to The Media Line that it is not in Israel’s interests to start a war, but to defend itself.
“[The army] should deliver a clear message that firing missiles constantly into Israel will not be tolerated,” he said. “The general idea of getting rid of a terrorist organization that is running Gaza and embittering the lives of the population is positive. Another question is if this option is a plausible goal or not.”
He explained that much of what started the latest round of violence is unconnected to Israel. It includes the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to subjugate Hamas by cutting or limiting electricity in Gaza, as well as withholding salaries to Gaza-based PA employees.
"Therefore, any ceasefire that could be reached would end up being broken by Hamas leaders anytime they feel that PA President Abbas is not playing to their tune. What long-term goal would this achieve for Israel? In two-months, we could find our civilians again under a barrage of 150-200 missiles in a night. I think this is something that the Israeli government shouldn’t be willing to tolerate.
“When we see Hamas leading demonstrations on the border since March, completely disregarding its civilian population, deciding to fire rockets whenever it pleases—and often basing decisions on its internal politics—this suggests that a ceasefire with Hamas would be futile,” Hirsch concluded.
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