Briefing on the Gaza escalation


Last update: 11 March 2012, 18.30 GMT

Key Points

  • The escalation between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip is the result of the IDF carrying out a pre-emptive airstrike on Friday, which killed Zuhir al-Qaisi, the secretary-general of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), armed group.
  • According to the IDF, al-Qaisi was planning a terror attack to be launched against Israel from the Egyptian controlled Sinai, and was involved in organising the raid from the Sinai into Israel in August 2011 which killed eight Israelis.
  • PRC and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have fired over 100 rockets since the strike, with a million Israelis within range, but the IDF has been highly successful at targeting the firing groups and at intercepting the rockets with the Iron Dome missile defence system.
  • Neither Israel nor Hamas, the ruling authority in the Gaza Strip, is interested in an escalation at present, but Hamas is finding it harder to reign in the other armed groups in Gaza, who have increased capacity to mount operations as a result of destabilisation of the Sinai.

What caused the current escalation?

  • The escalation was triggered by an IDF airstrike on Friday evening which killed Zuhir al-Qaisi, a commander in the Gaza based armed group, the Palestine Resistance Committees (PRC). The strike also killed a member of the group, Mahmoud Hanani, who was with al-Qaisi. Hanani was released in the Gilad Shalit deal but had returned to militancy.
  • Al-Qaisi was, according to the IDF, planning a terror attack on the Egypt-Israel border, and was involved in planning the August 2011 raid from Sinai into Israel which targeted civilian traffic on an Israeli highway, killing eight.
  • PRC and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) responded to the Israeli strike by launching volleys of rockets and mortars at Israeli towns and cities in southern Israel. One million Israelis are within range, including the major cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva. Four Thai immigrant workers were injured by a mortar over the weekend. A school in Beersheva was hit on Sunday afternoon but was empty because all schools in the area had been closed as a precaution.
  • The IDF is responding to the rocket fire with targeted strikes against the firing crews and weapons storage sites. The IDF killed had 16 militants affiliated with PIJ and PRC by Sunday afternoon, with one civilian also reportedly killed.
  • The IDF also deployed the new Iron Dome missile defence system to intercept rockets heading for populated areas. It succeeded in downing 37 of 46 rockets it targeted by Sunday afternoon.
  • Hamas has so far not broken its own ceasefire with Israel, which it has mostly kept to since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Israel has not widened its operations to Hamas targets, but Hamas is accused by the IDF of failing to act to prevent the other groups from firing.

What is the wider significance?

  • This escalation is the latest in a series of similar escalations that have occurred over the past year, and are indicative of changing dynamics in the Gaza-Israel-Egypt triangle. This is the most significant since August 2011.
  • Since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, Cairo’s control over the large and sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, has declined considerably. This has created an opportunity for armed groups in Gaza to use the Sinai as a base of operations against Israel, where they are relatively immune from Israeli attack.
  • The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other in Egypt has led Hamas to distance itself from Iran and align itself with Islamist parties taking power through elections in several Arab countries. The question of whether or not to pursue a policy of violence against Israel at the present time has divided the movement in recent months.
  • However, PIJ and PRC remain dependent on Iran and continue to launch periodic attacks against Israel. PIJ in particular has greatly increased its arsenal, and Hamas’s ability to control it has declined. Ten rockets were fired in January and 28 in February.
  • The continued remarkable success of the Iron Dome missile defence system is justifying its high level of investment. The weapons ability to reduce the threat of rockets to Israeli civilians has strategic significance, including by reducing the need for the IDF to escalate the conflict to stop the rockets, allowing more time for a ceasefire to be established.

What is likely to happen?

  • The pattern for recent similar escalations has been several days of intensified rocket fire from Gaza and targeted Israeli strikes against the groups responsible, before a relative ceasefire takes hold. Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has warned that the current escalation will continue for several days. In August, the Egyptian authorities, who are keen to see a restoration of calm, played an important role in brokering a ceasefire.
  • However, there is always the chance that a major loss of civilian life on either side could bring about a further escalation. A rocket strike from Gaza striking a populated building resulting in significant loss of life could lead to a wider Israeli military operation against armed groups in the Gaza Strip. A major loss of civilian life in Gaza could increase pressure on Hamas to enter the conflict.