Israel and the Palestinian leadership in Gaza stepped back from the brink of war Tuesday when both sides apparently agreed to halt fire provided the other side did the same.
The move, facilitated by Egypt acting as an intermediary, followed several days of rocket, tank and artillery fire across the Gaza frontier.
More than 115 rockets were fired on Israel since Saturday, injuring some eight civilians.
Authorities said several rockets were aimed at population centres in the south of the country but were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.
Israeli attacks killed a total of seven Palestinians (three militants and four civilians) and injured some 30 others.
Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, praised the militant groups that had been launching most of the rockets for their willingness to cease fire.
“They showed a high sense of responsibility by saying they would respect calm should the Israeli occupation also abide by it,” Mr. Haniyeh said Tuesday on a visit to a Palestinian hospital.
Benny Begin, a member of Israel’s inner cabinet, told reporters following a meeting of the council Tuesday that the shooting had subsided but the conflict was far from over.
“This round of firing appears to have ended,” he said, “and things must be looked at soberly without illusions for both sides.”
What triggered this episode?
Two points of view
Israel claims the flare-up began Saturday when Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep on the Gaza border, injuring four soldiers.
Israel shelled Palestinian targets in response, after which Palestinian groups launched their barrage of rockets into southern Israel over the next two days, with Israel shelling still more targets in Gaza.
Hamas says the violence stemmed from an Israeli incursion into Gaza two days earlier. Four tanks and an armoured bulldozer drove 100 to 200 metres into central Gaza Thursday in order to root out explosives in a tunnel that had been unearthed.
During the action, a 13-year-old boy was killed when the Israelis returned fire from Palestinian fighters. That incident triggered a series of small attacks leading to the Saturday anti-tank firing, Palestinians say.
Hamas has not so much been firing rockets on Israel as tolerating groups that do. Its purpose is to portray itself as a more popular alternative to the West Bank-based PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas is taking his case for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations General Assembly later this month seeking a diplomatic, rather than an armed, solution to the Palestinian cause. As well, Mr. Abbas recently told an Israeli interviewer that, in a peace settlement, he was not seeking to return to his birthplace of Safed, now in Israel, from which he and his family fled in 1948.
The admission shocked many Palestinians as it appeared to relinquish a right to return to the entire Palestinian homeland.
For its part, Hamas wants Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to know that Hamas remains an armed resistance movement.
After responding sharply to Saturday’s anti-tank missile attack, Israel resorted more to rhetoric than to rockets. The Israeli press was full of analysis that the government was considering every option up to and including a full-scale ground war and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drummed up international sympathy for such an eventuality when he briefed nervous foreign ambassadors in Ashkelon, a city close to Gaza and well within the range of Palestinian rockets.
At the same time, some leading government ministers were allowed to speak openly of the possibility of the government returning to “targeted killings” of Hamas leaders, a practice abandoned three years ago.
What they have in common
Ironically, both Israel and Hamas want to avoid another war such as the one in 2008-09 that left 1,300 Gazans and 13 Israelis dead.
Israel worries that Hamas’s arsenal includes missiles that can strike more accurately at Israel’s cities and that such a conflict would antagonize Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood leaders, jeopardizing the peace treaty between the two countries.
Hamas fears not only that war could bring about great destruction, but also could lead to a great loss in Hamas’s popularity among Gazans. It’s taken almost four years (and hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar, Hamas’s new supporter) for the Islamist government to recover from the last war.
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