For the sixth time in a year, Hamas and Israel reached the brink of war. But last weekend was different. Both sides upped the ante to a deadly level not seen since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.
The violence began on Friday, when sniper fire by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) during the weekly “Great Return March” protests wounded an IDF officer and a female soldier. Israel responded by ordering the Air Force to strike a Hamas target in Gaza, killing two militants.
Usually, the cycle of terrorism and retribution ends there, but this time it didn’t. Already, it was different. With Memorial and Independence Days on the horizon, followed by the Eurovision Song Contest May 14-18, PIJ hoped to ruin Israel’s party.
The drizzle turned into a rain of almost 700 rockets fired from the blockaded coastal enclave in less than 48 hours, first by PIJ and then by launches coordinated with Hamas.
The barrage claimed the lives of four Israeli civilians: Moshe Agadi, the first Israeli civilian killed since 2014, was killed outside his Ashkelon home by shrapnel to his stomach and chest; Moshe Feder, 68, from Kfar Saba, was killed after a Kornet anti-tank guided missile struck a car near the Gaza border between Yad Mordechai and Sderot; Ziad Alhamamda was critically injured in his chest by shrapnel from a direct strike on an Ashkelon factory; and Pinchas Menachem Prezuasman was killed after he suffered severe shrapnel injuries to his chest while running to a shelter in Ashdod.
Hamas and PIJ attempted to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome anti-ballistic missile defense system with massive, simultaneous firings. They also aimed an explosive-laden drone at an Iron Dome battery. Hamas also launched the Kornet anti-tank missile into a civilian van on Route 34 near Kibbutz Erez outside of Sderot, which killed Feder.
It wasn’t the first time that terrorist groups in the Hamas-run enclave have used Kornet missiles. They’ve been used against civilians before. In November, a military bus was struck at the Black Arrow memorial site facing northern Gaza, injuring two. But no soldiers were killed, since Hamas fired after the troops had disembarked.
But with the killing of Feder, Israel in turn resumed its strategy of targeted assassinations of senior operatives.
On Sunday, shortly after the Kornet struck Feder’s van, the IAF struck the car of Hamed al-Khoudary, who Israel said was the liaison transferring funds from Iran to terrorist groups in the Strip.
His assassination, the first since 2014, was authorized despite the concerns of military officials who feared it might further escalate the violence, and even trigger a war.
The head of the Southern Command, Maj.-Gen. Hertzi Halevy, spoke following Khoudary’s killing in the heart of Gaza City on Sunday, warning that Israel’s policy of killing terrorism activists “is expected to continue.”
And it did. Another Hamas operative was struck while riding his motorcycle on Salah al-Din Street, near the city of Khan Yunis.
The Israeli military also targeted the private homes of other senior Hamas activists.
While the military struck mainly Hamas targets, 40 of them belonged to PIJ, including a cross-border attack tunnel which the military feared the terrorist group would use to carry out a serious attack during the fighting. In total, 25 Gazans were killed.
The message was clear from both sides: This time around it’s different.
With a population of two million people living in dire humanitarian conditions, Hamas is desperate to secure an easing of Israeli restrictions on the beleaguered coastal enclave and the end to Israel’s 12-year blockade.
Hamas wanted a ceasefire early on, but Israel continued to strike. The IDF wanted to twist the arms of PIJ and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire on its terms, and not to stay bound to the terms of a ceasefire set by factions in Gaza.
Netanyahu has been under heavy criticism from right-wing politicians, with whom he now has to form a coalition government. He was blasted on Monday by many who said that the IDF has failed to restore its deterrence and needs to exact a heavy price from Hamas for the rockets.
While the military contends that deterrence remains, they know that the redline which they have placed has an expiry date.
The next round of fighting, and even a war, is not far away. Everyone knows that.
This round of violence was not only different, but more worrisome. It showed that the next round will be even more intense – and more deadly.