RAMALLAH – After several days of intense violence, during which 19 Palestinians were killed and one Israeli wounded, a fragile calm has returned to Gaza. But political commentators argue that this could well be a precursor to Israel’s next war on the coastal territory.
During the last week the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a series of attacks following a rocket attack from Gaza that hit an Israeli school bus, seriously injuring a 16-year-old pupil.
Palestinians countered that Israel’s assassination of three Hamas commanders a week before the latest bloody confrontations was the spark. Israel blamed elements in Gaza that it says were planning the kidnapping of Israelis in the Sinai.
Following Israel’s strike, resistance fighters from a variety of factions in Gaza retaliated by launching dozens of rockets and missiles at Israel.
Many of those killed in Gaza were Palestinian resistance fighters, but civilians were among the dead and injured. The precise number of civilian casualties is being disputed by Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Israeli intelligence has argued for a number of years that Israeli soldiers are the targets of potential kidnappings. Every year during the Jewish Passover, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, warns Israelis not to travel to the Sinai due to a risk of kidnapping. There has been none to date.
This has raised questions about Israel’s timing of the killing of the Hamas commanders. Many are asking whether Israel intends to follow up with another brutal military assault along the lines of Operation Cast Lead, the previous war on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, including 300 children.
“The goal that we have settled on, of seeking a return to calm, is a grave error because it will allow Hamas to reinforce along the lines of Hezbollah,” Israel’s outspoken foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio.
“The objective must be to force Hamas out of power. To return to calm accepts a war of attrition in which Hamas can determine when there is a lull and when the front is heating up,” he said.
Lieberman’s controversial comments provided a peak into the thinking of the Israeli cabinet, which met Tuesday to discuss the flare-up on the country’s southern border with Gaza. Military sources were quoted in Israeli media as saying that the truce would be followed by an even wider confrontation.
“Hamas has been busy rebuilding its forces for the past two years, and this can only mean we’re facing an all-out clash,” a senior IDF officer told Israeli media.
An Israeli cabinet member told the Israeli YNetNews.com that “in any event, it is not in our interest to launch an extensive operation until after Independence Day, so for now we seek to calm things down. However, if the rocket fire is resumed and Israel hit, there’s no telling what will happen.”
For the time being, Israeli analysts argue that both sides are interested in a temporary truce despite the heated rhetoric and the chest-thumping because both sides have something to lose.
Hamas can hold a significant section of Israel’s population in the south hostage in their underground bunkers as code-red warnings continually warn of incoming rocket barrages. Israel, on the other hand, can wreak such devastation on Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure as to set the territory back decades, not to mention the huge death toll.
Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah says that not only will the Israelis attack, but also the timing and agenda of another full-scale war is reliant purely on Israeli dictates.
“Hamas and the other Palestinian factions are in a weak position. They can threaten Israel all they like, but Israel has superior military power. It also controls Gaza’s coast, airspace, border-crossings and has the entire strip under lockdown, so there is very little Hamas can do in reality,” Awad told IPS.
“One of the reasons behind the timing of the assassination of the three Hamas commanders was the prospect of Fatah-Hamas unity talks resulting in some concrete and positive developments as the two sides met recently,” added Awad.
“Israel greatly fears a united Palestinian front. Now there is tension and chaos again in Gaza, and unity talks are once again on the back burner. Furthermore, Israel has also taken advantage of the confusion and unrest sweeping the Arab world when Hamas is weakened by a disaffected public in Gaza and is struggling to control the smaller factions.”
Prof. Moshe Ma’oz from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University believes that if Israel does attack it would have to consider the complications and consequences on the ground. “In order to keep control of Gaza, the IDF would have to reoccupy it. This would be costly and a military drain. What would the follow-up plan for dealing with 1.5 million people be, and has this been thought through?
“However, one thing is for sure. Should Hamas hit another civilian target like a school bus and cause a high number of deaths, Israel would strike with an iron fist and the consequences would be very bloody.”
(Inter Press Service)