Analysis: Fragile ceasefire after renewed Gaza violence

A weekend of violence – in which nearly 700 rockets, missiles and mortars were fired from Gaza towards Israel, purposefully targeting Israeli civilians – has given way this week to a tense ceasefire.

Four Israeli civilians were killed and 142 were injured, including four in critical condition. Palestinian medical officials reported 27 deaths since Friday, including 16 identified as terrorist operatives. Tragically, a 14-month-old baby and a pregnant woman are among the Palestinian deaths. Terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad admitted that one of their rockets misfired and was responsible for their deaths.

The Israel Defence Forces reacted to the onslaught by striking 350 terror targets in Gaza, including terror tunnels, rocket launch sites, command and training centres, weapon facilities, observation posts and military compounds.

Israel operates to strict rules of engagement to avoid as much as possible any civilian casualties. The IDF uniquely uses a variety of warnings ahead of military strikes, including leaflets, phone calls and nonexplosive strikes on buildings that alert residents to an impending airstrike, known as “roof-knocking”.

The fighting came to an end in the early hours of Monday morning following an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

Over the course of the attack, an average of one rocket was fired towards Israel every three minutes, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis within rocket range and tens of thousands of families forced to take refuge in bomb shelters.

The rocket attacks were conducted by Hamas and the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whom the IDF primarily blames for this weekend’s attacks. Hamas and the PIJ, the second most powerful terror group in Gaza, are sometime rivals but also frequent co-conspirators.

Israel’s anti-missile defence system, Iron Dome, managed to intercept about 240 rockets, but 35 hit urban areas, including a hospital, a nursery and homes. The Iron Dome’s radars successfully spotted every rocket and mortar launch, which ensured that Israelis were warned of incoming projectiles ahead of time. Without Iron Dome, the casualties would have been far higher.

Israel’s response also included a rare assassination of a terrorist operative whom the IDF said was responsible for funnelling money from Iran to terror groups in the Strip.

The violence began after the PIJ, the second largest terror group in Gaza, conducted a sniper attack which injured Israeli soldiers serving along the Gaza border on Friday. In response, the IDF shelled a nearby terrorist observation post. The rocket attacks commenced soon after.

This latest outbreak of violence is the biggest rocket attack on Israel since the 2014 war, when almost 5,000 rockets were fired at Israel during the 50-day conflict. However, rocket attacks have continued to hit Israel periodically ever since. In August 2018, 200 missiles and mortars were fired at Israel, and in March 2019, one of the most powerful rockets ever launched by Gaza militants, flew nearly 70 miles before it slammed into a house near Tel Aviv, wounding seven people, including two infants.

Hamas has continued to rebuild its weapons stockpile since 2014 and is estimated to have between 5,000 and 20,000 rockets. In 2018, its Gaza chief, Yehiya Sinwar, boasted that the group had many more at its disposal than during 2014. He said that what had been fired in 50 days “would be fired within five minutes” of any future Israeli offensive. Hamas began manufacturing Qassam rockets in 2001. Initially, they had a range of just two or three miles. That is now believed to have extended to a range of 10 miles. However, as March’s attack targeting Tel Aviv showed, some of the group’s missiles can travel much further.

The upsurge in violence comes amid a backdrop of ongoing indirect talks between Hamas and Israel, overseen by Egypt, aimed at securing a permanent ceasefire.

In late-March Israel and Hamas reached an informal understanding by which Hamas would cease violent attacks on the border. In return, Israel would allow in further cash from Qatar which is used to assist impoverished families, pay Hamas civil servants and assist UN “cash-for-work” projects; increase the supply of fuel and power; ease restrictions on goods entering and leaving the Strip; and increase Gaza’s fishing zone.

That deal appeared to have led to much reduced violence but there were disagreements over whether each side had fully implemented their commitments. Israel, for instance, increased then reduced the fishing zone around Gaza last month following a series of rocket attacks. Israel also claims that interruptions in the flow of cash from Qatar were not its doing.

But it is not just supposed broken promises which led to last weekend’s escalation. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza are well aware that Israel is approaching a sensitive period of public events. Israel marks Memorial Day and Independence Day this week, while next week thousands of visitors are expected to arrive for the Eurovision Song Contest. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are believed to have seen this as an opportunity to force Israel to agree to a ceasefire deal with better terms for Gaza, especially getting more Qatari money into Gaza. The two terror groups believed Israel would not launch a ground offensive or a full-scale war.

Media reports based on Palestinian sources suggest that the understanding reached by the two sides late on Sunday essentially involved an agreement by Israel to implement the term of March’s deal in return for Hamas ending all “resistance” activities against Israel, except for “peaceful” border protests.

Nonetheless, the situation remains deeply unstable for a number of reasons.

First, efforts by the Palestinian Authority to bring Gaza back under its control continue to flounder on Hamas’ insistence on maintaining its arms. For the past two years, the PA has sought to pressurise Hamas economically with dire knock-on effects for the people of Gaza.

Second, there are signs of increased radicalism on the part of PIJ. Its new leader, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, is based in Damascus and takes his orders from Iran. He wants to try and engage Israel in renewed and intensive hostilities in order to give Iranian forces in Syria greater room to operate. The theory being that if Israel is engaged in Gaza it won’t be able to carry out operations in Syria.

Third, Israel refuses to speak with Hamas but effectively negotiates with the terror group via Egypt. Crucially, while the IDF has pushed for measures to tackle the humanitarian situation in Gaza and improve living standards, Benjamin Netanyahu has equivocated, concerned that moving too far in that direction will lead to political opponents to his right once again charging the prime minister with caving in to Hamas terror.