Bulldozed into a pre-election escalation - analysis

Hamas and PIJ had threatened to avenge the death of PIJ terrorist Muhammed Ali al-Na’im, whose mutilated body was carried by an IDF bulldozer – so it was just a matter of time, and intensity.

Trails are seen in the sky as Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets that were fired from Gaza, in Sderot, southern Israel February 24, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Trails are seen in the sky as Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets that were fired from Gaza, in Sderot, southern Israel February 24, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
An escalation with terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip a week before the third round of elections in Israel is not something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was gunning for but, rather, was bulldozed toward.
Despite the ongoing drizzle of rocket fire by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) toward southern Israel, Netanyahu’s government had been focused on securing a long-term ceasefire with Hamas.
Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman on Saturday spilled the beans that several journalists had been barred by the military censor from publishing a secret visit to Qatar by Mossad head Yossi Cohen and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi to persuade the Qataris to continue funding Gaza.
Liberman told Channel 12 that the Israeli officials “begged” the Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Emadi, and Qatari National Security Adviser Mohammed Bin Ahmed al-Misnad to keep sending money to blockaded Gaza.
They agreed, and millions of dollars will continue to make their way to the Strip. Israel, meanwhile, had just granted 2,000 work permits for Gazans (in addition to the 5,000 from last year) and had extended the permitted fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles.
All the while, Israeli politicians, including Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, continued with their harsh rhetoric, claiming that Israel is planning to “fundamentally change” the situation regarding Gaza and warning that “there may be a military operation in the coming days.”
But all these moves and words by the Israeli government to extend the period of “relative calm” in the South and prevent an escalation with Hamas before elections are worthless when the main player is Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group that has no responsibility to care for the residents of the blockaded enclave.
This round started with gruesome footage of an IDF armored bulldozer lifting the corpse of 27-year-old PIJ terrorist Muhammed Ali al-Na’im after he was killed by IDF fire while planting an explosive device along the Gaza perimeter fence.
Footage from the scene, which went viral on social media, showed the bulldozer driving at high speed toward a group of Palestinian youth throwing stones to prevent the machine from snatching the body. Several people were seen carrying another individual, but the bulldozer was seen lifting Na’im’s body from the ground before it returned to Israel along with an IDF Merkava tank that had been guarding it.
Hamas and PIJ had threatened to avenge Na’im’s death, so their response was just a matter of time and intensity.
When PIJ struck back, firing rockets at communities close to Gaza, Israel upped the ante and struck targets belonging to PIJ (but not belonging to Hamas) in Gaza and, for the first time, in Syria as well.
PIJ, the second-most powerful group in the Gaza Strip, has been left relatively unscathed by Israeli airstrikes until recently. It is estimated to have 8,000 rockets (more than Hamas) and a fighting force of 9,000 men with another 6,000 potential fighters.
The majority of PIJ’s rockets are more primitive than Hamas’s and have a shorter range. But the group has launched its new short-range Badr-3 rocket, which has a 250-kg. warhead, toward Ashkelon.
In the last round of fighting with PIJ in November, when the group fired close to 400 rockets toward Israel’s home front over the course of 50 hours, Hamas stayed out of the fighting. This is similar to what we are currently seeing.
During that round, Israel also reportedly sent a message through United Nations Special Envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov that the IDF would assassinate the group’s leader, Jihad Ziad al-Nakhla, who lives in Damascus, if the rocket fire continues.
While no such actions were taken in November, the message was given. It was reiterated once again by the strikes in Syria on Sunday night.
Elections or not, Israel will respond with force to rocket fire – until the next round.