As Israel ramps up air strikes, in retaliation for the murder of three settlers, responsibility for which Hamas denies, analysts weigh whether a major conflagration is immanent, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed from Gaza.
The discovery of the bodies of three young abducted Israeli settlers Monday night drew a strong rebuke seen in “precision strikes” on 34 “targets” mostly belonging to Hamas in the Gaza Strip overnight. A Palestinian from the group Hamas was also shot dead.
Meetings of the Israeli security cabinet ended up with no clear-cut decision on the scope of any further action in the coastal enclave, or in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli army proposed “considered and moderate actions” against militants in the West Bank, officials said. Any sustained campaign there could undermine US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
Since three young settlers went missing near the settlement of Gush Etzion on 12 June, Israel and Hamas have been locked in a battle of wills that opened all possibilities — from continual harassment to frontal attack.
No major Palestinian group has so far claimed the abduction of the settlers, but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has no doubt in his mind. He blamed Hamas and waged a campaign of arrests against its members. Hamas, while denying the charges, may have encouraged a recent flurry of rocket shelling of southern Israeli settlements.
Israel, some say, is considering another no-holds-barred war against the Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli officials are already on record saying that they will chase down anything that is “green” — a reference to the colour of Hamas flags.
Since the abductions, Israeli army killed seven Palestinians and arrested hundreds, including Hamas parliamentarians and formerly imprisoned militants. But the wide-scale searches in the West Bank produced no clues, neither to the whereabouts of the settlers or the identity of their alleged abductors.
Haaretz columnist Amos Harel said that Israel’s recent campaign didn’t achieve its declared goal of finding the missing settlers, and is unlikely to weaken Hamas. Noting that the Gaza Strip remains calm so far, Harel pointed out that the deployment of Iron Dome batteries indicates that the Israeli government doesn’t expect the calm to last for long. Hamas officials, meanwhile, suggested that the aim of the Israeli clampdown is not to find the settlers, but to repress the Palestinians and undermine their will to resist.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum hinted that Israel and the PA are cooperating to stamp out the resistance. “He who thinks that there is no link between what is happening on the ground and the continuing siege of Gaza… is mistaken.”
Barhoum pointed out that the PA and the temporary united government are reluctant to sort out the matter of salaries of Hamas-appointed government employees in Gaza.
“Their goal is [to undermine] the resolve and steadfastness of the Palestinian people. What they are after, first and foremost, is the head of the resistance; namely Hamas and its supporters,” Barhoum announced.
As Ramadan started, Israel scaled down its operations in the West Bank, while continuing to gather intelligence. The Israelis, and some Palestinians, suspect that Hamas is hoping to spark off another Intifada in the West Bank. And recent remarks by Hamas officials, including former Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, seem to validate this suspicion.“An Intifada has been launched in the West Bank,” he said during a funeral of former Hamas minister Mufid Al-Mekhallelati. “The threats of the enemy don’t scare Gaza, nor do they scare the stone-throwing children who engage the occupiers in battle until dawn in the West Bank,” Haniyeh added.
Wary of triggering a major uprising, the Israeli army has come up with new tactics. During recent searches in Ramallah and Nablus, Israeli soldiers left fortune cookies that read, “Happy Ramadan, here’s something sweet after Hamas made life bitter in the West Bank.” Matchboxes distributed earlier said, “Beware… Hamas is setting fire to the West Bank.”
As Palestinians joked about Israel’s clumsy attempts at humour, analysts pondered the possibility of Israel waging an all-out offensive against Gaza, recalling those of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and Pillars of Defence in November 2012.
Palestinian analyst Hamzah Abu Shnab ruled out the possibility of such an offensive, at least in the near future. But he was speaking before the bodies of the settlers were found.
“The occupation [army] is focussing on the fate of the three settlers. It is busy looking for them in the West Bank and is not going to open a new frontier until it has some information about their fate.” Abu Shnab said the state of agitation in the West Bank could lead to a new uprising. If this happened, the PA may see its popularity dwindling, he pointed out. But if rockets continue to be fired from Gaza, or if Israel discovers that Hamas ordered the abduction of the settlers, an offensive on Gaza cannot be ruled out.
Israeli military analyst Ron Ben Yishai feels that a confrontation with Gaza is nearing. In an article published in Yedioth Ahronoth, Ben Yishai pointed out that, “Although the firing of missiles is committed by small factions wishing to drag Hamas and Israel into confrontation, Hamas is not doing anything to stop it.” Some Israeli officials seem to favour a more radical approach towards Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is also the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, said that instead of recurrent incursions into Gaza, Israel should perhaps reconsider reoccupying it.
Three Israelis were injured lightly when rockets were fired from Gaza on Sderot Saturday night. In a telephone conversation that followed between Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and the Sderot mayor, Yaalon promised to “strike with an iron fist on the terrorist organisations that fired the rockets”. This is exactly the language that can lead to major confrontations in the West Bank and Gaza — something that some analysts say Hamas is now seeking.
Source: Al-Ahram weekly