Seen This Movie Before, And It’s Not a Happy One: Another Cycle of Gaza Violence

[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for the website of the 24-hour TV news service broadcast on-line from Israel, i24news.tv.]

Amid the growing tension in Gaza and southern Israel, with Israeli leaders vowing to respond with force to the Palestinian rocket barrages pf the past 24 hours, the fact is that Israel’s options are limited.

The slow and slippery escalation began – as it often does in this region – accidentally, with no desire or intention by any of those involved to instigate a new round of hostilities.

Foreign Minister Lieberman: "There's no choice but to re-conquer Gaza"

Foreign Minister Lieberman: “There’s no choice but to re-conquer Gaza”

It started in early March, with what seemed then as a significant, yet isolated incident 1,500 kilometers away. After months of gathering intelligence and surveillance, the Israeli navy captured a merchant ship in the Red Sea carrying Syrian-made missiles, mortar shells and bullets from Iran bound for Sudan. From there, it appears, the Iranian plan was to smuggle the weaponry to the Gaza Strip.

The shipment was most likely intended for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which is fully sponsored by Iran. Unlike the much larger Hamas movement, which broke off ties with Iran over Tehran’s support of President Bashar Assad in the bloody civil war in Syria, PIJ has remained loyal to Tehran.

Iran, which recently reached an interim agreement with world powers regarding its nuclear program, and is trying to defuse tensions with the West, denied the Israeli allegation that it was behind the shipment.

Yet, the incident on the high sea could be related to what has been going on between Gaza and Israel this week. One should not rule out that Iran instructed its client, the PIJ, to launch rockets against Israel. Its aims are triple: to retaliate for the seizure of the ship, to stir tensions and to embarrass and punish Hamas – through retaliatory Israeli strikes on Gaza – for its independence and disobedience.

Hamas came to power in a military coup in 2007, defeating the Palestinian Authority government.

Since then, Hamas has been performing a tightrope dance. It was initially sponsored by Iran and Syria, then by Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled in Cairo. In the last eight months, since the military took over control of Egypt, Hamas has found itself with no patron and a shortage of money.

Hamas’s delicate maneuvering has also included launching rockets and missiles against Israel, then accepting two ceasefires – in 2010 and 2012. But it has also been turning a blind eye to the PIJ”s independent launching of rockets, thus violating the ceasefires with Israel, on the one hand, while trying to restrain PIJ, on the other.

It seems that this time, Hamas failed to foil the PIJ-Iran plan.

The trigger that served as an excuse to embark on the current round of violence was the preparation by PIJ militants to launch rockets against Israel earlier this week. Their effort was foiled by Israeli forces, who killed the three members of the launch unit.

In response, PIJ retaliated by firing more than 100 rockets toward Israel, starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing on Thursday. The Israel Air Force went into action, attacking 29 PIJ and Hamas targets in Gaza on Wednesday and bombing additional targets on Thursday. It was the fiercest battle between Israel and Gaza since the November 2012 Israeli military operation which ended in a ceasefire.

Now, Israeli leaders and military chiefs are debating their strategy. They want to prevent a slide into an unwanted cycle of action and reaction. They want to break this vicious circle and restore the ceasefire. But they also know that their options are limited. Long-term calm can be achieved by one of two ways.

The first, much preferable, way would be signing an agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA) which US Secretary of State John Kerry us trying to broker. But such an agreement would have to be not only implemented in the PA-ruled West Bank, but would also have to include Gaza. However, the chance of such a comprehensive agreement between the rival Palestinian sides, as well as Israel, is nil. Hamas will not agree to be part of any Israel-PA deal and it certainly will not accept an Israeli demand to disarm. Even the chance of a limited Israel-PA agreement in the West Bank is slim.

So Israel is left with the other, unwanted option: invading Gaza, toppling the Hamas government and disbanding and disarming all the terror groups operating there – Hamas, PIJ and small, renegade al-Qaeda-inspired groups. Such a solution is being advocated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But there is neither support, nor enthusiasm, for this option among most of the cabinet members. They know that such a solution means all-out war, with attendant heavy casualties on both sides, and condemnation by the Arab countries which are secretly supporting Israeli efforts to stop a nuclear Iran. Thus, an Israel invasion would play into the hands of Iran.

Therefore, more realistically, we can expect more of the same. A ceasefire, its violation, rocket launches from Gaza and Israel Air Force strikes and another ceasefire.

March 13, 2014

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