Israel started the latest tit-for-tat exchanges with Palestinians in Gaza when a week ago, it assassinated the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees Zuhir Al Qaisi on the pretext that he was plotting a major attack on Israelis in Sinai. How Israel knew his intentions has not been explained. Israel wants us to believe Qaisi shared his operation plan with subordinates who may have been suborned by Israel or even talked on his phone about what he had in mind. If Qaisi was serious about security, he would have done neither. But then he was taken out by an Israeli strike while driving with his deputy, who was also killed.
Israel says nearly 300 rockets exploded in its territory since then while Israel carried out 37 airstrikes, 19 targeting rocket-launchers and 18 warehouses were missiles are stored. Twenty-six Palestinian fighters and four civilians were killed and 80 injured, many of them children.
Overnight on Monday, Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire mediated by Egypt. According to Gaza’s de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the deal includes a pledge by Israel not to assassinate militia commanders and fighters. Israel has denied that any such arrangement was reached. Major General Amos Gilad told the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz that the deal was “quiet in exchange for quiet.” Israel would, of course, say this.
Israel always insists on its freedom of action. It remains to be seen whether or not Israel will carry out further assassinations in Gaza. If it holds off for some time, Haniyeh may be right.
This particular escalation was carefully plotted by Israel, which knew that ambushing Qaisi would trigger a round. The Israeli southern command was said to be well prepared for rocket strikes.
Israel had several serious reasons for eliminating Qaisi in order to draw fire from Gaza’s rocketeers.
On the tactical military level, the Israeli high command wanted to test its “Iron Dome” anti-missile system which has been deployed to protect the south’s main towns Ashkelon and Ashdod. Of the 300 missiles fired, 56 targeting population centres were intercepted by Iron Dome while most of the rest exploded in countryside and desert areas without causing damage. The Israeli military calculated that the success rate of Iron Dome was 70 per cent. Twenty Israelis were injured or shell-shocked but there were no fatalities. The blood price was low for Israel.
An additional Iron Dome system is due to be installed in coming weeks with the aim of expanding coverage. Perhaps that, too, will require testing, prompting Israel eliminate another Gaza resistance figure after some months.
The Israeli high command also wanted to test the readiness of residents of southern towns to obey civil defence regulations and take to shelters, keep their children home from school, and so forth. This, too, was seen as a success because life for a million people was severely disrupted for four days.
Furthermore, Israel sought to remind residents of the south that they should not get too comfortable, too complaisant. They must always be on alert, ready for an attack by “terrorists.” By keeping the populace in such a state it is forced to rely constantly on the military and to give its support to the military - particularly when budgets are being debated.
On the Palestinian political plane, Israel wanted to see how Hamas would respond. Hamas, now engaged in the process of reconciling with Fatah, is trying to project itself as a mainstream movement and build bridges with pro-Western regional capitals in order to end its isolation. Hamas has pulled its politburo out of Damascus and distanced itself from Tehran. Hamas does not seek fresh violent exchanges with Israel and did not participate by firing its own rockets.
On the regional level, Israel sought to test the response of Egypt which has, during previous exchanges, brokered ceasefires. This time Cairo, apparently, intervened later than Tel Aviv had predicted.
Perhaps, because of the lack of real leadership in Egypt following the uprising. Before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who had developed close relationships with Israeli counterparts, could be counted upon to intervene promptly whenever there was trouble.
Israel had in mind that Hamas is, of course, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which is now a key political player in that country. The Brotherhood, which controls 40 per cent of the seats in the country’s parliament, engineered the adoption of a resolution calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo and the cancellation of the agreement — part of the 1978 Camp David Accords — to sell natural gas to Israel.
On the international strategic plane, Israel sought to test international tolerance of military action against Gaza at a time the West and East (Russia, China and Iran) are locked into a struggle for Syria. There was a certain amount of publicity over Israel’s deadly airstrikes but no demand for restraint from any capital and no call for a meeting of the UN security Council.
However, Israel’s provocation of an even brief crisis with Hamas was not welcome while the Western powers and their allies were trying to focus international attention and outrage on the Syrian government’s harsh crackdown on protesters and armed rebels.
The Gaza exchanges were a sideshow for Israel. It remains obsessed with Iran. Hamas restraint was a disappointment. Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz that “Hamas’ continued preference for diplomatic action in the face of Israel’s attacks on Gaza is less than convenient for those who desire an Israeli strike on Iran.”
The “those” to whom he was referring are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak who argue that Hamas is an eternal enemy of Israel and a surrogate of Iran, therefore hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities would seriously weaken not only Iran but also its former ally Hamas — even though Hamas is gradually gaining acceptance as a mainstream player on the Palestinian scene.