Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Escalation in Gaza

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Key points

  • Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip have sharply escalated rocket and mortar attacks into Israel in the last few days, with 50 mortars fired at Israel on Saturday alone. This has led to increased violence over the Gaza-Israel border. An Israeli shell fired at the source of a Palestinian rocket launch on Tuesday 22 March inadvertently killed four Palestinian civilians, whilst four Palestinian militants were reported killed in a separate strike.
  • Whilst Hamas is not believed to be seeking a full-scale escalation, its intentions remain unclear. The organisation faces grassroots pressure for the reunification of Palestinian factions, having rejected President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for new elections in September.
  • Israel’s policy is balanced between wanting to avoid escalation, whilst at the same time maintaining the deterrence which has kept the border relatively quiet and protected Israeli civilians since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009.

What are the latest events?

  • There has been an escalation in Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Gaza in recent days, leading to Israeli counter-strikes. Four Palestinian civilians, including three aged 12, 16 and 17, were killed on Tuesday when an Israeli mortar shell hit a house in Gaza. According to the IDF, Israeli forces were targeting the source of fire, after four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Tuesday morning. The IDF expressed regret at the civilian casualties. Four more Palestinians, reported to be Islamic Jihad operatives linked to a recent rocket attack on the Israeli city of Beersheva, were reported killed later in the day in an airstrike. Terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip routinely fire at Israeli towns from the cover of populated areas. Grad rockets also struck the Israeli city Ashkelon on Tuesday evening.
  • The major trigger for the current escalation was a barrage of 50 mortars fired into Israel from Gaza on Saturday morning, some of which were claimed by Hamas’s military wing. A total of 282 rockets and 193 mortars landed in Israel from the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 until 15 March 2011. The firing of 50 mortars in a single morning, therefore, represented a major escalation. Two Israeli civilians were injured in the attacks. Two rockets were also fired from Gaza at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip, later on Saturday. Israel responded on Sunday with airstrikes on various Hamas targets including weapons storage facilities, a smuggling tunnel, and a tunnel being dug to infiltrate terrorists into Israel. There have also been several recent incidences of Israeli tanks on the border being targeted.
  • On 16 March Israel targeted and killed two Hamas operatives in an airstrike, in response to an earlier barrage of mortars from Gaza.

What might explain the rise in tensions?

  • Hamas’s intentions are unclear. Over the past two years they have sought to largely prevent their own forces and other groups firing at Israel, allowing only sporadic attacks. The barrage of mortars on Saturday, including the claim of responsibility by Hamas’s military wing, represented an escalation by the group. But on Monday, a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said the group was ready to return to its ceasefire if Israel were to stop its activities.
  • One interpretation is that the Hamas escalation over the weekend resulted from the death of two Hamas activists in the Israeli air strike on 16 March. However, this strike followed what appeared to be a longer term gradual escalation of terror activity in recent months. Last month Islamic Jihad, another extremist group in Gaza, fired two rockets that hit Beerheva, 40km from the Gaza Strip. This was the first time rockets had been fired at this range since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009.
  • It may be that Hamas’s political leadership has deliberately given greater leeway to its military wing and other groups in the Gaza Strip to step up attacks on Israel. This trend may be encouraged by Hamas seeking a welcome distraction from domestic political pressures.
  • Last week saw the first wave of a series of planned grassroots demonstration calling on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement in the West Bank to end their factional divisions. Hamas has rejected Abbas’s call for new elections in September.
  • In any event, whilst Hamas may have welcomed a limited escalation, it is not believed to be ready for, or seeking, a full-scale confrontation with Israel. It is using the current period of calm to improve its arsenal. This was illustrated by the capture of an Iranian arms shipment headed for the Gaza Strip by Israel last week.

What are Israel’s current considerations?

  • The situation represents a test of Israel’s deterrence. Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive against Hamas and other militants in the Gaza Strip which ended in January 2009, succeeded in greatly reducing the firing of rockets and mortars into Israel.
  • Israel has every interest in maintaining that situation of calm and avoiding an escalation. It is motivated primarily by the desire to avoid a return to the situation whereby thousands of Israeli civilians living close to Gaza were in daily fear of rocket attacks. It will be calculating how to respond in a way that maintains deterrence against Hamas and other violent groups within the Gaza Strip, without escalating the situation.
  • Israel has somewhat relaxed its restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip in recent months, following international criticism in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010.