The risk of all-out war between Israel and Hamas appears to have receded today. An uneasy ceasefire brought to an end an intense round of rocket attacks which threatened to blow off course a truce between the two sides which had been months in the making.
Some 460 rockets were launched at Israeli cities and towns along the Gaza border by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups in a series of attacks which commenced on Monday afternoon and continued into Tuesday.
The political fallout in Israel appears to still be playing out. Defence minister Avigdor Liberman hasresigned, saying the ceasefire was a “surrender to terrorism”.
He charged that in negotiating with Hamas, Israel was “buying short-term quiet at the cost of serious damage to national security on the long term”.
The rocket attacks deliberately targeted Israeli civilians, with a guided anti-tank missile fired at a bus (pictured). Throughout southern Israel bomb shelters were opened and schools closed, as missiles rained down, destroying homes. The Iron Dome air defence system intercepted over 100 of the incoming projectiles.
It was the largest-ever attack in a 24-hour period from the Gaza Strip, with more than twice the number of projectiles fired than on any single day of the bloody 2014 war.
In response, Israel attacked military targets in Gaza associated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
One man – a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Hebron working in Israel – was killed in a rocket strike on the Israeli city of Ashkelon; two people – including a soldier who was one of the bus passengers – were seriously wounded. A further 50 people were also injured.
Seven Palestinians, at least four of which were Hamas militants, were reported to have been killed in the Israeli strikes on Gaza and 20 wounded.
Israel hit Hamas targets, including its TV station – which is said to have been used to direct and encourage terrorist activities – and the headquarters of its internal security and military intelligence organisations. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacks were indiscriminate.
The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, which was accepted by the Palestinian terror groups late on Tuesday afternoon following a lull in hostilities, brought to an end the most intense period of fighting since the end of the 2014 Gaza war.
In Khan Younis, Gaza City, Jabalya, Rafah in Gaza, there were pro-Hamas demonstrations after the ceasefire came into effect, as the terror group and its supporters claimed victory.
“We come out today, celebrating the victory of the resistance, the victory of the Qassam and the victory of the Palestinian resistance here on the mighty land of Gaza,” Hamas official Ismail Radwan said.
He also threatened further attacks on cities across Israel. “If you attack Gaza and our people, the response will be the resistance and the Qassam’s missiles shaking you everywhere—in Haifa, Jaffa, Ashkelon and Majdal. God is great. God is great.”
There were also protests in some areas of southern Israel against the ceasefire, with some residents claiming they were effectively “captives of Hamas”.
Labor leader Avi Gabbay also sounded a note of caution and attacked the government for “neglecting” the issue of Gaza since the 2014 war.
“This is not the time for another fragile truce,” he said. “This is the time for a true diplomatic initiative in Gaza, that will lean on the recommendations of the security establishment.”
According to the IDF, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have “in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortar shells of different calibres and ranges” in their arsenals in Gaza. That figure is almost twice the number that Israel assessed they had in the 2014 war.
However, both Hamas and Israel appeared keen to avoid too great an escalation. Hamas mainly fired short-range mortar shells and rockets, and kept its medium-range weapons focused on targets within 20 miles of the Gaza border.
Israeli strikes were aimed at empty buildings, with warning shots fired in advance to ensure they were evacuated.
The rocket attacks followed a botched intelligence operation by the Israeli Defence Forces.
On Sunday evening an Israeli special forces unit entered Gaza to install intelligence collection devices in Khan Yunis. The undercover team was stopped at a Hamas checkpoint, where a firefight ensued. An Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed, as were seven Hamas militants. The terrorist group then launched a volley of rockets into Israel.
Israel did not respond to Sunday’s rocket attack in an apparent attempt to avoid a further escalation. However, after a brief pause on Monday morning, Hamas then launched a renewed barrage of rockets, provoking an Israeli response.
This week’s events followed rather more hopeful developments over recent months, with Israel and Hamas engaged in negotiations for a long-term truce, mediated by Egypt. The broad terms of the truce are a cessation of terror and rocket activity by Hamas in return for Israel lifting some of its economic restrictions on Gaza.
Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority had imposed sanctions on Gaza in order to pressure Hamas into demilitarisation and power-sharing with the PA.
As part of the prelude to this truce, Israel allowed $15m in cash, donated by Qatar, to enter Gaza through its territory in order to pay the salaries of thousands of government workers. Netanyahu said letting the cash in was “the right step” to maintain quiet on the Gaza border and prevent a further deterioration in the dire humanitarian situation there. Israel also agreed that Qatar can underwrite the costs of operating the Gaza power plant at full capacity and provide $90m in cash in monthly instalments.
The Palestinian Authority, which has attempted to squeeze Hamas over the past 18 months bycutting transfers of money to pay the salaries of civil servants and reducing what it pays to Israeli power companies which supply Gaza, has vehemently opposed the infusion of Qatari cash. President Abbas has even threatened to cut the PA’s funding to Gaza.
Netanyahu has brushed aside such objections, saying at a press conference last week: “I am doing everything I can to avoid an unnecessary war.”
But, as the Times of Israel’s Palestinian affairs and Arab world analyst, Avi Issacharoff suggested yesterday, Sunday night’s bungled intelligence operation led to an unanticipated chain of events.
“The elite unit’s operation deep inside Gazan territory put Hamas in a difficult position: respond and risk a war, or contain the incident and risk being portrayed as having capitulated to Israel in exchange for money,” he suggested.
Moreover, Issacharoff wrote, Hamas is engaged in a bitter rivalry with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which pushed for a more aggressive response against Israel following Sunday night’s incident.
Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party joined Netanyahu’s government a year after the 2015 general election. Liberman called for new elections and a fellow minister from his party, immigration and absorption Minister Sofa Landver, is also expected to tender her resignation from the government. Liberman’s move leaves the coalition with a narrow and precarious majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu is expected to assume the role of defence minister, although the hard-right Jewish Home party is agitating for the post. Hamas greeted the news of Liberman’s resignation as a sign of Israel’s “defeat”.
Elections are not scheduled to be held until November 2019, but there has been continuous speculationthat, leading in the opinion polls, Netanyahu may seek an early vote and a new mandate.