Israel plays with fire over smouldering Gaza

Israel plays with fire over smouldering Gaza
4 min read
29 Aug, 2016
Comment: This week marks two years since the end of Operation Protective Edge, but today, Israeli policy under Lieberman provokes and empowers rogue groups in Gaza, writes Yousef Munayyer
A boorish Israeli Defense Minister is throwing fuel on Gaza's ever-burning fire, writes Munayyer [Getty]

Israeli airstrikes earlier this month provided a violent reminder of a Middle East crisis the world cyclically forgets; the Gaza Strip. Since the Israeli bombardment of 2008-9, Gaza has witnessed major Israeli onslaughts every few years, of which November 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in Summer 2014 were the most devastating.

And just as quickly as Gaza raced to the top of the headlines during these hostilities it dropped off the global agenda immediately afterwards, leaving the conflict to continue, and the question of when, rather than if, the attacks would resume.

For years, the fiery dynamics that exist between the Israeli military and militant factions in Gaza have functioned as a method of communication between parties that otherwise had no formal or functioning channels of communication.

During periods that were not full blown wars, Israel routinely fired into Gaza and retained the "right" to do so on its own terms. This regularly resulted in the injury, death or detention of farmers, fishermen or protestors who were present in zones inside Gaza that Israel, often unilaterally, determined were off-limits.

Any projectile fire from Gaza was met with Israeli fire, sometimes in the direction of the projectile fire, but often also included strikes at other targets that were unrelated.

These targets - according to Israeli claims - were almost always positions used by the ruling Hamas authority or its military wing, as a way to punish them for failing to prevent the projectile fire. A singular projectile from Gaza usually garnered a limited Israeli response that rarely exceeded a handful of strikes.

As other conflicts have dominated the headlines, Gaza has all but been forgotten while it continues to lie in ruin

For its part, and unlike Israel, Hamas has been meticulously following the spirit of the ceasefire agreements negotiated with Israel through third parties in the aftermath of various full-scale bombardments. Adherence to these agreements by Hamas has even won them praise by officials in the Israeli security apparatus.

However, unlike Israel whose military functions under a unified chain of command, in Gaza there are various militant groups, of which Hamas' Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades is the biggest.

It does not take a big group, however, to rattle the status quo. For example, earlier this month, a small Salafist group reportedly fired a projectile toward an Israeli town. This has happened in the past and Israel's policy has seemingly been to fire at Hamas assets to hold them accountable for the failure to prevent the fire. 

This however, means that rogue groups operating in Gaza, many of which would like to see Hamas fall and replace it with something more extreme, have been given a tool by Israel through which they can strike at Hamas in ways they could never do on their own. 

After the projectile was reportedly fired by a small Salafist group earlier in August, Israel struck Gaza 50 times, according to an Israeli official. This constitutes the single biggest Israeli bombardment since the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, which ended two years ago this week. It also signals a dramatic departure from the expected protocol around the dynamics of fire.

The new Israeli Defense Minister is enacting a policy that will only throw fuel on Gaza's ever-burning fire

This change can be attributed to the new Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing ultra-nationalist who seems to want to imprint his abrasive personal style onto his tenure overseeing one of the most powerful militaries in the world.

Lieberman may be hoping to change the message to factions in Gaza regarding the cost of projectile fire, but in doing so he is heightening the risk of escalation, and handing the most extreme groups in Gaza power beyond their means, with which to challenge the Hamas authority.

This is a recipe that will either spark violent infighting in Gaza or a return to full-scale prolonged bombardment; or even both.

The conditions that have led to one war after another in Gaza - which Israel callously refers to as "mowing the lawn," a periodic maintenance they must carry out that kills hundreds of children in civilian neighborhoods with the world's most advanced weapons of war - remain unchanged.

The lessons of the wars in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014, where in each case Israeli actions drove an escalation toward war, have been ignored and instead a boorish new Israeli Defense Minister is enacting a policy that will only throw fuel on Gaza's ever-burning fire.

As other conflicts have dominated the headlines, Gaza has all but been forgotten while it continues to lie in ruin with a population of 80% refugees who rely primarily on international support for daily sustenance and with 95% of the water unfit for human consumption.

The unhinged behaviour of Avigdor Lieberman may well make certain that war on Gaza dominates the headlines again, and the international community should take note immediately, before it is too late.

Dr. Yousef Munayyer is a Middle East Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC and Executive Director of US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefMunayyer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.