De-escalation Easier Said than Done in Gaza, As Each Side Picks Its Spots

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Palestinians carry the body of Islamic Jihad militant Ateya Mkat, 22, who was killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday, during his funeral in Gaza City, August 25, 2011. (Photo: Majed Hamdan / AP)

It’s a peculiar cease-fire that sees 20 missiles and mortars launched in a single night, but that’s the kind of cease-fire in effect in the Gaza Strip, despite the professed efforts of the two major players, Israel and Hamas, to draw down hostilities.  Neither side may want to see the conflict spiral into full-on battle, with Israeli ground forces edging into the coastal enclave as they did in December 2008. Beyond the obvious human toll, it would risk Israel’s fragile relationship with Egypt — which wants quiet — and risk both Israeli and Palestinian standing before a world community being lobbied on the Palestinian bid for United Nations membership next month.

But there’s scant evidence to suggest things will quiet down, not least because there are other militant groups in Gaza besides Hamas. Early Wednesday, an Israeli rocket homed in on a car driven by a senior member of Islamic Jihad. It was what Israeli officials called  a “targeted assassination” rather than an escalation but the dead man’s colleagues responded by launching mortars and rockets. One reached the desert city of Beersheba, where it was knocked out of the sky by the anti-missile system known as Iron Dome.

The missile shield, which operates like the Patriot system deployed against Iraqi Scuds in the First Gulf War,  has given some solace to Israeli civilians within range of Gaza, but there’s also evidence that militants are trying to ratchet up their capabilities in response. Israeli officials noted in the Hebrew press over the weekend that militants found some success against Iron Dome by firing rockets in barrages, rather than one at a time.  And now close examination of the wreckage of downed missiles indicates that militants appear to be adapting the 122-mm Grad to extend its range.  The changes might make credible targets of major population centers such as Bet Shemesh, at the foot of the Jerusalem Hills,  and Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Because there are no spare Iron Dome systems available — only two exist so far — that would put immense additional public pressure on the Israeli government to go on the offensive in Gaza, even if doing so threatened to enrage an Egyptian public the interim government in Cairo says it must struggle to hold at bay.

All this began, of course, when militants on Egypt’s border with Israel opened fire on Israeli cars and buses on a highway leading to the Red Sea resort city of Eilat Aug. 18.  At least three Egyptian police were killed as Israeli forces pursued the assailants, setting off a diplomatic crisis that Israel scrambled to tamp down.  But delicate questions persist.  On Monday, the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that three of the assailants had been identified as Egyptian, not Palestinian, as widely presumed. And on Thursday, the Israeli daily Haaretz noted that, oddly, there appeared to be no evidence of mourning in Gaza for anyone killed in the Sinai operation; the report was filed by Amira Haas, the respected Haaretz reporter resident on the West Bank.

An Israeli security official, however, tells TIME that whatever the origin of the perhaps one dozen militants who carried out the Eilat attack, they were indeed commanded from Gaza.  Israeli intelligence was eavesdropping on the Popular Resistance Committees in real time on the day of the attack, the official says, and heard instructions from the dusty Gaza city of Rafah to the battleground in the Sinai.  The head of the PRC was killed within six hours of the first attack, along with three other members of the militant group and a two-year-old boy who was also in the house.