With tension mounting in Israel in a week of unprecedented Hamas missile attacks and the prospect of a full-scale war, Dawn Barkhuizen looks at what is different about the conflict and what lies behind it
Conflict is not new in Israel but this week’s escalation of hostilities against the Jewish state by Islamist militants operating in the Gaza Strip has been marked by a new strategic thrust as well as several significant background developments.
Yet few of those calling for “a de-escalation of violence from both sides” seem to have taken note of some of the more startling aspects of this week’s events.
First is the fact that Hamas launched its first-ever direct and massive assault onto the Israeli capital, Jerusalem, on Monday night.
The objectives behind such an attack are not difficult to grasp. Hamas is evidently attempting to take the political lead among Palestinian groupings and to set the political agenda. The attacks have also put the Palestinian issue back onto the international table after it lost traction and visibility after the conclusion of the Abraham Accords.
Israel’s subsequent retaliatory strikes on Hamas leaders and those from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — a second group also firing rockets at Israel — have not stopped the hail of rocket fire. Tel Aviv and other parts of central and southern Israel are also now being targeted.
At the time of going to press late on Thursday night the number of rockets fired out of Gaza towards Israel since Monday totalled a staggering 1 800 — and Israel launched a massive bombardment on a large number of targets in the northern Gaza Strip, using both ground and air forces.
In this week’s Hamas missile barrage, new weaponry and new tactics have been evident. Rockets with a longer range than previously used have been fired. According to the Israeli newspaper Haáretz, the Israeli military had, up to now, believed that the longest-range rocket possessed by Hamas was the R-160, which has a range of 160 kilometres. This week however, a rocket was fired towards the Ramon airport near Eilat – from a launch point of over 200 kilometres away.
A new tactic has also been the massive ramping up of the number of rockets fired simultaneously or in rapid succession.
Over the years various militant groups in Gaza have sought to outwit Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. But this protective mechanism has consistently defused and deflected smaller numbers of rockets fired into Israel. This week however, the Dome’s capacity has been visibly stretched. More rockets than usual appear to be penetrating Israeli territory. These have obliterated suburban houses and private vehicles. By Thursday seven people had been killed – including a five-year-old boy in the border town of Sderot, an Arab father and daughter whose home in Lod was hit, a caregiver from India and her elderly employer, killed in a strike on a building in Ashekelon, and an Israeli soldier who had been sitting in a jeep near Gaza. But a far worse scenario would certainly have unfolded had the Dome not successfully knocked out most of the incoming missiles.
The Dome has another vital life-saving function – it serves as a warning system, sounding a siren that gives Israelis 40 seconds to take refuge in the nearest bomb shelter. This week many Israelis, across the religious divide, and including members of the Knesset (parliament), have spent long hours huddling in bomb shelters.
Another feature of this week’s violence has been widespread civil unrest throughout Israel. Clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens have taken place, particularly in cities with mixed communities, such as Lod and Haifa. While harmony in these areas has been tenuous, extensive efforts have previously been made there — by both Jewish and Arab residents — to build friendly relations and community cohesion.
So, what has given rise to the sudden violence?
Firstly, the violence has not been so “sudden”.
While some reports claim that it flared up over a dispute over the ownership of 28 houses in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, Israeli sources dismiss this. Instead, they believe the attacks have long been planned. And this is not improbable considering the logistics involved in acquiring a massive arms cache. For one thing, this cannot happen overnight. Thousands of rockets must have been stacking up in Gaza for some time. And this also could not have happened without outside expertise and funding.
While Hamas’ links with Iran and its terror proxy, Hezbollah, are widely known, a lesser known relationship is the one between Hamas and Qatar. This Gulf state, which has warm relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, was an outlier when it came to the Abraham Accords. Qatar not only supports Hamas diplomatically, but it began to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Gaza after Hamas seized control of the Strip in 2007, according to terror funding experts at the Washington Institute.
Low key reports that emerged this week about discussions suddenly taking place between the US government and Qatari officials, also between lsrael and Qatar, add weight to the possibility that there has been some sort of Qatari link, even if tenuous, to this week’s events.
That said, it is not impossible that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have seen the new US administration, with its priority of restoring the Iran Deal and its apparent lack of urgency in appointing an ambassador to Israel, as presenting an opportune moment to strike the Jewish state. And certainly, this week’s events have taken the Biden administration completely by surprise, according to the Guardian newspaper.
A final piece of evidence suggesting collusion in a pre-planned attack is offered by Seth Frantzman, a respected Israeli journalist and author with deep knowledge of Israel’s internal and external security dynamics. This week he wrote that “a dry run” for this week’s widespread civil unrest occurred in late April. To this end social media was used to incite tensions between Jewish and Muslim communities. By time it came to the end of Ramadan, and protestors — who had amassed rocks and firebombs in the vicinity of the al-Aqsa Mosque — were dispersed by Israeli police earlier this week, Frantzman says communities were primed for violence.
As of Thursday night, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were continuing to launch their rockets into Israel from behind the human shield of ordinary and decent Gazan citizens. Israel’s predictable response in seeking to protect its own people, then predictably escalated the number of fatalities in Gaza. This figure had reportedly reached 83 by Thursday night.
It is difficult to understand how any organisation could put the lives of their own civilians on the line in the manner of Gaza’s Islamist groups – unless the calculus all along has been to generate violence and draw Israel into a blazing conflict with the territory that it unilaterally pulled out of in 2005.
At the end of the day it should also be blindingly obvious that the basic requirement for peace — in this conflict or any other — is a legitimate display of political will, the cessation of hostilities, and cutting off lines of support from those who sponsor terror.