Israel and Hamas are on the brink of war again. There were sustained conflicts between Israel and Hamas in 2008/9, 2012, and 2014. The most recent spasm of violence may burn out as fast as it has erupted; however, growing political pressure on both sides may lead to a confrontation that both Benjamin Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar have tried to avoid in recent months.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that an Israeli special forces unit operating in Gaza, east of Khan Yunis, was prematurely identified as it carried out an operation, and in the ensuing firefight, seven Hamas fighters were killed, along with the Israeli Lieutenant Colonel commanding the special forces unit. Nur Barakah, the commander of the unit of the eastern battalion of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing), was also killed. Barakah was 37 and recently received an M.A. in Comparative Jurisprudence from Islamic University of Gaza, based on a thesis on “Negligence in Jihadist Action.” Barakah was reported to be a senior figure in the management of Hamas’ tunnels, which are used to infiltrate fighters into Israeli territory by digging underneath the security fence. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Barakah was the explicit target of the Israeli operation. Lebanese al Mayadeen news channel reported that Marwan Issa, al-Qassam Brigades’ second in command to Mohammed Deif, was the intended target of the operation.
Within forty minutes of Israel exfiltrating its unit from Gaza in the aftermath of the battle on Sunday night, 120 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. For its part, Israel responded with air strikes throughout the Gaza Strip overnight. After several hours of quiet, a new offensive was launched when an anti-tank missile destroyed a largely empty Israeli bus that had transported soldiers to the Black Arrow memorial in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, near the Gaza border late Monday afternoon. An Israeli soldier, who had remained on the bus, was seriously injured. Hamas then launched a new salvo of rockets and mortar fire into Israel, dramatically escalating the confrontation.
Early Tuesday morning, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was reporting that Hamas had fired approximately 370 rockets into Israel. As many of 100 of the rockets were intercepted and many landed in open fields, but the attacks injured 60 civilians and sent thousands to bomb shelters for cover. Residential buildings in the city of Ashkelon and the towns of Sderot and Netivot were directly hit by the rockets, and one man was killed in Ashkelon and two women were critically injured. Israel responded by conducting air strikes on 150 targets linked to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Among the targets destroyed was the building that houses Hamas’ al-Aqsa television station and the al-Amal Hotel, a Hamas redoubt. In response to Monday afternoon’s unexpected escalation, Egyptian mediators along with UN Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov were attempting to restore calm. However, rockets continued to rain down on southern Israel on Tuesday morning, and there will be immense pressure on the Israeli government to take decisive action to restore deterrence and end the rocket fire on its communities.
Paradoxically, this unexpected round of violence follows months of consistent effort between Israel and Hamas, mediated through Egypt, to arrive at a long-term ceasefire. Israel was seeking a measure of stability and calm along its border with Gaza, and Hamas was attempting to show some kind of achievement for the months of deadly Friday demonstrations at the security fence.
Hamas’s leaders, according to Israeli reports, chose to escalate its attacks late Monday afternoon after hours of calm in response to internal criticism that they had “sold” the blood of resistance for “Qatari dollars,” the 3 suitcases of $15 million in cash that Qatar’s envoy to Gaza, Mohamed al-Emadi, personally delivered to Gaza last Friday, with Israel’s permission. The payment was the first installment of six monthly installments from Qatar that are expected to total $90 million. The money was to be used to pay Gaza’s civil servants and alleviate the acute economic and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Seventy percent of young people in Gaza are unemployed, and 53 percent of the 1.5 million residents live in poverty, which could easily slide into a humanitarian catastrophe. A month earlier, Qatar had begun purchasing $10 million per month in fuel for Gaza in order to address Gaza’s chronic lack of electrical power. Nevertheless, seven of Hamas’ fighters are dead, and Sinwar may feel his legitimacy is being judged by the severity of his response to the Israeli operation, particularly in the wake of making an implicit deal with Israel.
While neither Yahya Sinwar nor Benjamin Netanyahu appear to want another war, they are both discovering the limits of their ability to control or manage the conflict. Sinwar wanted an extended ceasefire that would have allowed him to take credit for improving the rapidly deteriorating living conditions in Gaza, which he would have argued came as a result of the controlled escalation Hamas has engineered through its Friday demonstrations over the last eight months. The Qatari cash and fuel would help him consolidate his power and legitimize his authority by showing that his approach of managed low-level confrontation on the ground, in combination with negotiating and renegotiating temporary ceasefires with Israel, ultimately delivered Hamas’ only tangible achievements since 2014.
Netanyahu, with the support of the security establishment, views improving the quality of life in Gaza as in Israel’s security interests. He believes an extended ceasefire is the best of bad set of options when it comes to Gaza, and if Gazans have more to lose, in terms of their material conditions, there is a chance that a less destitute public would restrain Hamas, at least in the short term. Netanyahu’s goal has been to manage the conflict because he doesn’t believe there is a solution to it. In some respects, recent developments vindicate this approach because they expose the fragility of any understanding with Hamas. Israel has to choose between bad and worse policy options when it comes to Gaza.
The Prime Minister’s extended press conference on Sunday, before this latest crisis, highlighted Israel’s Gaza predicament: Netanyahu argued explicitly that there is no political resolution available for Gaza, while at the same time implicitly suggesting that there is no military solution either. It is not clear what political objective a military victory in Gaza would deliver; therefore, Egypt brokering deal that allows Qatari cash into Gaza was Israel’s attempt to avoid another round of war with Hamas. However, those considerations will now take a back seat to the urgent need to end the rocket fire on Israel’s civilian population and restore deterrence. In the end, Sinwar and Netanyahu may be stuck with a war neither seemed to want.