Israel’s next step in Gaza

Israel’s strategy in Gaza remains uncertain, as internal politics are at play for PM Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is facing pressure from within his own coalition [AP]

Tel Aviv, Israel – There is undeniably a war going on in Gaza, where Israeli army jets have dropped 400 tonnes of ordinance on as many targets, killing at least 70 Palestinians and causing more damage in two days than they did during an eight-day campaign in 2012.

Inside Israel, though, the talk is (somewhat counterintuitively) about whether a “major escalation” looms on the horizon.

Until recently, Hamas had been keeping relative peace in Gaza, arresting members of Islamic Jihad and other groups who fired rockets at southern Israel, pursuant to the terms of a ceasefire that ended the 2012 conflict.

But the detente broke down after June 12, when three teenage Israeli settlers were kidnapped in the occupied West Bank; their bodies were discovered on June 30 in a valley outside Hebron.

Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnappings, though it has not presented any evidence to prove it.

VIDEO: Israel-Gaza tension: Preparing for battle?

The Israelis carried out a massive round of arrests in the West Bank, rounding up hundreds of people affiliated with the group, including dozens of prisoners released in 2011 in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

In Gaza, it stepped up air strikes on Hamas members. Hamas fired a barrage of dozens of rockets on Monday night, and by Tuesday, Israel set off on the current military offensive.

Israel has threatened to escalate further: The cabinet has authorised the army to mobilise 40,000 reservists, and the defence minister has spoken of a lengthy campaign, even a possible ground offensive.

So far, though, most of this is for show. Only a few thousand soldiers have actually been called up, and in the south on Wednesday, there were few signs of the large-scale movement of military equipment that would precede an invasion.

“I wouldn’t say it’s bluffing. Israel is preparing for all options, but at the moment, they’re not going to be launched,” said Ephraim Kam, a former Israeli intelligence officer. 

But even top officials have no idea how or when this conflict will end, according to government sources, and Israeli officials say they don’t know what Hamas hopes to achieve from the fighting.

The group has already unveiled new weapons, striking further into Israel than ever before. During the 2012 war, Hamas surprised observers by shooting once at Tel Aviv. The city has already been targeted several times in the current fighting, as has Jerusalem, and overnight the Qassam Brigades lobbed a rocket at Hadera, a central city 100km from the Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday, they reached even further, as two rockets landed in the sea near Haifa, about 30km further north. They are the furthest-reaching rocket strikes conducted from Gaza to date.

The group also landed a makeshift naval commando squad on the beach in Zikim, south of Ashkelon. Five fighters were killed when they tried to attack an Israeli military base.

None of these new weapons and tactics, however, have caused any damage or deaths, and analysts say they are unlikely to change the Israeli strategy.

“Hamas tried to achieve something, and they’re eager to have a military success, but so far they failed in everything they tried to conduct,” said Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s national security council.

The diplomatic scene, however, is considerably different from 2012, when Egypt played a key role in negotiating a ceasefire. The military-led government which came to power in Cairo last year declared Hamas a terrorist organisation, and destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels on which the group relies for weapons and basic goods.

The Egyptian intelligence services maintain their long-standing contacts with Hamas, but Israeli officials say it’s unclear whether they will make effective mediators. Talks over the past few days have been unsuccessful.

Hamas has hinted that one condition for ending the rocket fire is the release of the Shalit deal detainees re-arrested over the past few weeks.

But that will be politically difficult for Netanyahu, as a number of top politicians, including members of his government, have demanded an end to prisoner releases.

Netanyahu is also facing pressure from within his own coalition: At a cabinet meeting last week, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett complained that the air force was bombing too many empty structures in Gaza.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, has revived his bi-annual call to reoccupy Gaza.

He announced on Monday that his political party, Yisrael Beiteinu, would end its 18-month-old unity pact with Netanyahu’s Likud, at least partly because of disputes over Gaza policy.

“The situation in the government is such that if they let go now, politically, they will suffer. The people in the south will never forgive them. They can’t stop the operation,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But Netanyahu also has to contend with vocal opposition from inside Israel. The past week has seen unprecedented protests by the country’s Palestinian minority, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

The demonstrations started in East Jerusalem, where a 16-year-old boy was abducted and brutally murdered, a revenge attack for the killing of the settlers.

Protests have since spread to other cities in central and northern Israel, and activists say they are planning fresh demonstrations against the offensive in Gaza.

Palestinians also demonstrated against it on Tuesday night in Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem and other cities in the occupied West Bank.

“The Israeli government is not stopping. They are continuing their crimes, wounding and killing people in Gaza,” said Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Knesset. “If he invades Gaza, there will be a strong protest inside Israel itself… He’s worried about our reaction, and that is good.”

Source: Al Jazeera