Gaza again on the edge


Once more to the brink. The escalation of tit-for-tat exchanges between Palestinians in Gaza and Israeli forces has claimed at least 25 lives, including eight children, and is dangerously pushing the region back to the edge of outright war.

Israel claims that at least 340 missiles have been fired at it since Wednesday, killing three civilians. They have been particularly infuriated by the targeting, to date to no effect, of Tel Aviv, setting off the first air-raid warnings in the city since it was threatened by Iraqi Scuds in the Gulf war in 1991. Yesterday a rocket was also fired at Jerusalem.*

That provocation has been matched by Israel’s assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military chief, and by saturation airborne attacks – peaking on Thursday, at a rate of one every five minutes – that have certainly been less than “surgically” targeted, killing at least 12 civilians.

The mobilisation of Israeli troops on the border, the call-up of tens of thousands of reservists, and attempts through aerial bombardment to clear corridors into northern Gaza suggest Israel may be planning a ground invasion for the second time in four years. If sabre rattling, that is one thing, perhaps understandable, but another invasion would be politically disastrous and both morally and legally indefensible. Not least because Israel’s spokesmen claim they have already very substantially destroyed Hamas missile stocks. Israel’s right to self-defence in international law is circumscribed by requirements that actions be proportionate to the threat faced and conducted so as to avoid civilian casualties. Neither element of restraint were features of its 2008 Gaza invasion which left some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

But Israeli restraint must also be matched by Hamas, whose militants’ return in recent months to shelling, and inability/unwillingness to control more extreme jihadist factions responsible for many of the rocket attacks, pose real questions about its political discipline and authority and notional commitment to peace.

The suspicion is that Hamas was willing to see the latest escalation to test support of allies in the Arab world, particularly Egypt. The restrained support manifest in the visit by the latter’s prime minister Hisham Kandil yesterday would suggest that Egypt, diplomatically lobbying for a ceasefire, does not intend to encourage or arm Hamas – the latter should heed that message.

Political, as much as security, considerations may also have pushed Israel towards confrontation. Both prime minister Binjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak are likely to see poll ratings for January’s election boosted by an aggressive stance. But that could backfire if Israel becomes involved in another messy and bloody occupation.

* This article was edited on November 20th, 2012.  

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