Dark Mode
Saturday, 01 October 2022
The implications of Gaza’s latest flare-up
Ian Black

Strange things happened in Gaza’s latest flare-up: first and foremost was the shortness of the fighting – three days, known in Britain as a “long weekend”- 56 hours in total. That was less than one-fifth of the time the violence continued in May 2021, ignited by the al-Aqsa mosque riots spurred by the eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

 The most bizarre aspect, however, was that the Islamist movement Hamas did not join the attack in response to the pre-emptive  Israeli strikes on Gaza, codenamed “Operation Breaking Dawn”. Hamas, though it expressed support for the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), stayed completely out of the conflict. This was the sixth major escalation since Hamas consolidated its control of the Gaza Strip back in 2007 and Israel tightened its blockade on the 2 million Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

 Forty-nine Palestinians were killed, among them 16 children, and over 300 more were injured in Israel's military operation, which also saw more than a thousand rockets fired by PIJ towards Israel. No Israelis were killed and 60 were lightly injured. Unlike Hamas, PIJ is not responsible for running the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished territory. As a result it is viewed as a more militant resistance faction, often acting independently and sometimes even undermining Hamas’s authority.

 Analysts believe one factor may have been that Hamas was seeking to rebuild its arsenal of weapons and tunnels under the border with Israel. The group does not want to give Israel an excuse to cancel the 14,000 Israeli work permits issued for Gaza since last year, or shut down the more consistent supply of electricity that currently reaches the strip’s sole power plant; both measures have made small but significant improvements to quality of life for the area’s impoverished population, of which 50% are unemployed.

 The Gaza Strip has remained relatively quiet since the 11-day war in May last year, which killed 256 people in Gaza and 14 people in Israel. The new round of fighting came as Israel prepares for its fifth elections in four years after the collapse of a short-lived coalition government, which ousted the long-time prime minister, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu. The bloodshed did not escalate into another all-out conflict, however, owing to a major gamble: that Hamas would resist being drawn into the fray.

  The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) performed well. Israeli commentators were impressed by the precise intelligence provided by the Shin Bet security service and military intelligence on PIJ’s intent to commit attacks, as well as on the location of the organization’s leaders. Finally, there was the success against PIJ’s rocket and drone capabilities.

  The general view is that until late July the tensions with the Gaza Strip were low.  It was known that PIJ in Gaza was preparing attacks, but the warnings surged immediately after the arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, the organization’s chief in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, on the night of August 1. Videos posted on social media by Palestinians showed Border Policemen dragging Saadi, who is 62, and has been in and out of Israeli prisons for two decades. 

 The view in Israel was that PIJ’s efforts at revenge were decided on by the organization’s secretary-general, Ziad al-Nakhalah, who was in Tehran at the time. Perhaps it was an emotional reaction, with Nakhalah taking to heart the clips showing Saadi being dragged across the floor by the Israeli Border Police when he was taken into custody, with an attack dog on hand.

 That revenge, it appears, was a reaction resembling that by Donald Trump in January 2020 when the then-US president ordered the assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander General Qassem Soleimani. This happened after the Iranians insulted him by having their militias launch rockets at an American base in Iraq despite the president’s threats.

 The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the oldest, intractable and divisive issues in the world. But there are currently many other distractions: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US-China tensions over Taiwan, the world energy crisis and global warming. Something needs to happen to persuade governments – including Israel’s next one - to resolve this conflict rather than just manage it, and not to be so passive about the next predictable flare-up.

 It is true that PIJ has suffered a setback in the fighting, but not one core issue of the Israel-Gaza relationship has been even remotely addressed. Egypt, Turkey and Qatar helped negotiate the ceasefire and Doha agreed to pay for the damage done to Palestinian homes. Maybe they can do more, with the support of the US?

  As the liberal newspaper Haaretz editorialised last week: “The decision of the Hamas leadership to act as the ‘responsible adult’ in the latest round of fighting and avoid escalation may be signalling a willingness to reach an understanding on a long-term period of quiet with Israel, to work to improve the welfare of Gazans, to pave the way for an international effort to rehabilitate the enclave and perhaps even to reaching an agreement on returning Israeli hostages and soldiers missing in action.” Let’s hope they are right.