Hamas and Israel clash in worst violence in years

The surge in violence came days before Israel celebrated Memorial and Independence Day.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Palestinian students look at a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes near their damaged school in Gaza, May 7. (Reuters)
Temporary quiet. Palestinian students look at a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes near their damaged school in Gaza, May 7. (Reuters)

LONDON - Violence between Gaza-based armed factions and the Israel Defence Forces flared May 3-6 and caused casualties on both sides.

Israeli attacks on Gaza reportedly killed 25 Palestinians while rocket fire into Israel led to the death of four Israelis in the most serious surge in violence since the war in 2014.

The escalation started after Israeli soldiers reportedly targeted protesters at the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel May 3 with live ammunition. Sniper fire from Gaza in retaliation resulted in injuries to two Israeli soldiers.

Over two days Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad indiscriminately fired more than 600 rockets and other projectiles into southern Israel, many of them intercepted by Israel. The Israeli Air Force carried out more than 350 strikes, targeting military sites but reportedly hitting residential buildings and media institutions in Gaza.

After two days of intense warfare, a ceasefire was agreed after mediation by Egypt and the United Nations.

This is a “direct continuation of what we have seen over the last year,” said Neri Zilber, adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. About every two months, Zilber said, there was an escalation mainly over the issue of economic, financial and humanitarian relief for the Gaza Strip.

The surge in violence came days before Israel celebrated Memorial and Independence Day and shortly before the Eurovision song contest May 14-18 in Tel Aviv.

“Hamas likely knew that (Israeli) Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not run the risk of rockets falling on Tel Aviv or having a major military operation while thousands of tourists from all over the world are here,” Zilber said.

Hamas, he said, was using this to push Israel to speed up implementation of the ceasefire deal agreed to in November.

Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, said Hamas had been using “low-level violence on the fence — arson balloons and kites” to achieve maximum concessions from the Netanyahu government.

Israeli authorities agreed to implement several measures as part of the ceasefire within one week, the Times of Israel reported, citing a senior Palestinian official in the Gaza Strip. The official said Israel would lift restrictions on “importing 30% of dual-use goods into Gaza and allow for increased exports” from the coastal enclave. In return, armed factions in Gaza were to restrict “resistance” activities to peaceful protests at the border.

The agreement also included Israel’s permission for Qatar to disburse $480 million in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Reports on the deal provoked a backlash against Netanyahu. Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, said the rocket fire was the result of Israel “losing our deterrence,” adding that the government surrendered “to blackmail from Hamas and other terrorist groups.”

Criticism also came from within Netanyahu’s own party. Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar criticised circumstances of the ceasefire, stating that a military campaign “was not prevented but postponed.” Netanyahu released a statement, after the start of the ceasefire, saying: “The campaign is not over and it demands patience and sagacity. We are prepared to continue.”

“The Israeli public is increasingly fed up with the periodic escalations,” said Zilber. Netanyahu knows, Zilber said, that a military operation in Gaza would not solve the fundamental issues: preventing the collapse of Gaza and bringing quiet for southern Israel.

Many observers stressed the need for a political solution to address the dire situation in the Gaza Strip where the unemployment rate is more than 50%.

“The only way ‘calm’ can be achieved is if Palestinians in Gaza… are seen as a people deserving of political rights, not an economic project to be developed,” wrote International Crisis Group Israel-Palestine analyst Tareq Baconi.

Karmon said the issue was connected to Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s ties to Iran, calling the group the “real proxy of Iran in the Palestinian area,” adding that Gaza was becoming “an alternative platform for Iran.”

Zilber said he doubted that the group was trying to undermine the November ceasefire, arguing that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad ran the military campaign together and were both at the negotiations table in Cairo. “There are political reasons for Hamas and Israel to paint Islamic Jihad as the bogeyman,” he said.

Karmon said the flare-up was initiated by Palestinian Islamic Jihad but Hamas wanted to profit from the situation.

Israel’s internal politics will, in part, determine whether this pattern of recurring violence will continue as Netanyahu is in the process of forming his next government. Some politicians who are expected to become part of the government are demanding “a more forceful approach to Gaza,” said Zilber. “Aside from the actual implementation of a ceasefire deal, internal politics within Israel might be leading to another escalation.”

Karmon also cited pressure on Netanyahu by right-wing parties, the opposition and public opinion to act more forcefully. “I think the present ‘quiet’ is very limited in time,” Karmon said.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala told Al Mayadeen television: “I anticipate a war to erupt in the summer following Israel’s attempts to disarm the Palestinian factions in Gaza.”