IN THE MEDIA

War in Gaza: Another round of violence with no end in sight

May 11, 2023 | Ran Porat

Image: Alamy
Image: Alamy

Lens (Monash University journal)
https://lens.monash.edu/2023/05/11/1385746/war-in-gaza-another-round-of-violence-with-no-end-in-sight

 

In the early hours of Tuesday, 9 May, about 40 Israeli military aircraft took to the sky. They were targeting three senior commanders of Gaza’s Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist organisation.

Owing to high-quality intelligence and precision weaponry, they swiftly ended the lives of PIJ’s northern area commander, Khalil Bahtini, PIJ senior operative Jihad Ghanem, and Tareq Izz ed-Din, in charge of PIJ’s outreach into the West Bank, an area ostensibly under Palestinian Authority (PA) control. A fourth PIJ commander was killed by Israel on the morning of 11 May.

Several Palestinian civilians, including at least four children, were also killed in the Israeli attacks, comprising family members of the targeted PIJ leaders and bystanders.

Shortly after the initial attacks, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) also bombed PIJ weapons depots and bases, and struck PIJ cells attempting to shoot rockets and anti-tank missiles launched from the strip towards Israel.

PIJ versus Hamas

PIJ is a relatively small but particularly radical and violent Iran-funded and armed terrorist group based primarily in Gaza. Following the early-May death of a PIJ leader in an Israeli prison following a hunger strike, PIJ fired more than 100 rockets and mortars towards nearby Israeli towns.

The narrow Gaza Strip, home to more than two million Palestinians, is controlled by the much more powerful and disciplined jihadist organisation Hamas. Since taking over the area in a bloody coup in 2007 against PA control, Hamas has ruled Gaza in an oppressive, authoritarian fashion, terrorising civilians.

Blockaded from all sides by both Israel and Egypt, it has para-military capabilities of considerable strength and size.

Currently headed by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas Gaza views PIJ less as a serious competitor and more as a nuisance.

After several rounds of conflict with Israel over the past decade (most devastatingly in 2014), the strip is in a rebuilding frenzy. That’s why Hamas has not paid heed, at least so far, to PIJ and Iranian demands since Tuesday to assist PIJ in launching a significant retaliatory strike on Israel.

While still dedicated to Israel’s violent destruction, Hamas does not currently want PIJ rockets and terror to prompt Israel to counter by extensively bombing Gaza, thus setting back these reconstruction efforts by years.

PIJ was able to launch hundreds of rockets to various areas across Israel on 10 May, but Hamas was only declaratively on its side, not making any substantial contribution to PIJ’s attack.

Ironically, Hamas wins twice, eating the cake and keeping it whole – retaining its claim for sovereignty over Gaza, and at the same time depicting itself as taking part in the Palestinian “resistance” by “allowing” PIJ to attack Israel.

Hamas is reaping the fruits of keeping its conflict with Israel largely quiet. Security stability has been allowing close to 18,000 Gazans to cross into Israel for work daily, injecting badly needed money into the strip’s economy.

Hamas then benefits from taxing these locals and the businesses they support with their wages, and from the considerable external support pouring into its coffers (including US$30 million monthly from Qatar, which Israel permits).

All of this is endangered by major rounds of fighting. Yet the situation remains highly unstable.

The IDF aim: Renewing Israeli deterrence

Recently, encouraged by Teheran, PIJ and Hamas have invested substantial resources towards branching out into the West Bank, specifically into northern cities such as Jenin and Nablus, where the PA’s governance is weak.

Several independent militant groups have arisen in these areas lately, fighting both against Israel and the PA with significant assistance from Iran.

These small cells have perpetrated numerous deadly terror attacks against Israelis over recent months, including the murder of three members of the Dee family in April.

In the face of PA ineffectiveness, the Israeli army has been stepping in directly to curb these West Bank terrorist cells since last year. Meanwhile, skirmishes occasionally lead PIJ and Hamas to fire rockets from Gaza – and in recent weeks, also from Syria and Lebanon.

Israel cannot accept a unified front against it (combining Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria) that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been seeking to establish, as represented by these rocket attacks.

From the perspective of the Israeli security forces, this week’s military operation in Gaza, known as “Arrow and Shield”, was a key step in a gradual process designed to restore Israeli “deterrence”, forcing Israel’s enemies to think twice before unleashing terror or rocket barrages on Israel because of an expectation of a disproportionately tough Israeli response.

It’s also the third time since 2019 that Israel has killed senior PIJ members in Gaza in targeted strikes. Such attacks are in line with the Israeli tactic since the 1990s of “mowing the grass” – meaning constant and relentless arrests and killing of Palestinian terrorists at all levels, based on the reasoning that terrorist groups must be suppressed constantly, or they spread and become more dangerous.

Conflict management leads to deterioration

Indirect negotiations on a ceasefire have begun within less than two days of fighting. However, everyone understands it doesn’t really matter how this latest clash ends – another Gaza clash is still just around the corner.

This is because the underlining essential problems remain unresolved. All sides are busy managing the conflict over Gaza, because no actor is willing or able to resolve it.

The constant attack-response cycle between Israel and the Palestinian terrorists is a result of a matrix of factors. Most notably, extremists are determining the agenda.

On the Israeli side, extremist politicians such as Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir are pushing the Netanyahu government to use greater force against the Palestinians, while gradually attempting to realise their dream of eventually annexing the West Bank.

Yet Israeli democracy limits the power of these politicians, and the current strike was a decision taken by security officials such as Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant, without input from the radicals in the current government.

The case on the Palestinian side is different.

The Palestinian camp is divided, but both Hamas and PIJ believe in an uncompromising Jihadist ideology that rejects the existence of the Jewish state, and spreads incitement while championing terror and armed struggle against the “Zionist entity” – with Iranian money, weapons and guidance.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a governance vacuum and a succession conflict loom for the failing and corrupt PA – especially when 87-year-old PA President Mahmoud Abbas finally leaves the stage after almost 20 years in power.

In the background, long and deeper processes also push ongoing conflict. The Israeli and Palestinian populations continue to grow at pace, creating increasing pressures on scarce crucial resources (water, land, energy) – problems exacerbated by the effects of global warming in the always unstable environment of the Middle East.

For more than a decade, there’s been no serious attempt to reach a viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even a stable arrangement for Gaza, and none seems close now. So the next major outbreak of deadly violence remains just a matter of time.

Ran Porat, Affiliate Research Associate, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University.

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