Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fighting escalates between Israel and Hamas

Another conflict has boiled over into fighting between the Hamas and Israel. Jerusalem is calling the operation “Pillar of Defence” and at present, rockets blast skyward from the Gaza Strip as Israel conducts strikes to stop them.

While the rockets launched from Gaza were an on-going threat for Israel for much of 2012, two recent events escalated the situation appreciably. Hamas launched rockets into heavily populated Tel Aviv, and Israel destroyed a car carrying a senior Hamas leader. The two sides haven’t looked back since.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced his planned visit to the region. However he may struggle to have any lasting effect. Neither belligerent appears serious about negotiating for a cease-fire. The strategic objectives for each have not yet been met and threats to both Hamas and Israel remain high.

Hamas has worked hard over the years to evolve and shape the political leadership of the Palestinian people. While it is not completely divorced from all militant divisions still present within Hamas, more specifically Hamas’s militant wing the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the group has come a long way from its early days of violent resistance.

The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas while the West Bank is controlled by the more moderate Fatah. Since Fatah competes for political control among the Palestinian population with Hamas, this gives the group motive to press on with their rocket launches.

The symbolism of backing down too early would signal a dangerous weakness calculated into any political machinations planned by opposition parties such as Fatah.

Yet Hamas also wants to avoid an Israeli ground assault that would surely collapse its leadership. The group needs to achieve a symbolic victory over Israel if it is to pressure the opposition groups for domination over larger Palestine.

The Israelis on the other hand have different reasons for maintaining the momentum. Hamas has displayed a new capability by launching rockets over 70 kilometres from Gaza. Such rockets have crashed into Tev Aviv and Jerusalem, an unprecedented show of ability by the group.

Unless Hamas has been able to manufacture significantly longer range missiles domestically, and by some reports this could actually be happening, the rockets are probably Iranian-manufactured Fajr-5 missiles. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) pointed to the use of such rockets as the “red line” that instigated the concerted Israeli airstrike campaign.

Locating and destroying the launching sites of these missiles and the weapons themselves are currently the number one priority for the IDF.

According to Reuters the IDF has conducted over three hundred airstrikes over Gaza in the last few days. But as this initial target set is depleted, and unless intelligence locates more rockets, those strikes will likely diminish.

Israel defence sources talking to the Jerusalem Post say Palestinian militants have launched approximately 2000 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip since January.

Up until November 14, Jerusalem had restrained any direct pre-emptive or retaliatory actions to stop these attacks. Although many of these weapons have landed relatively harmlessly in empty fields or even inside the Gaza Strip itself, some have struck populated areas.

So far in November approximately 1000 extra rockets have been launched at Israeli cities since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defence; that number growing as the current conflict expands.

A new Israeli made missile-defence system called Iron Dome has been responsible for interdicting many rockets bound for populated areas. The interceptor’s developers have given the probably exaggerated success rate of around 80 percent for their system, but it is clear the project is working as planned.

Notably, no reports of Fajr-5 rockets have surfaced since November 19. Whether this means Israeli strikes were successful or whether Hamas are holding on to them is unknown. If Israel feels those rockets remain a threat the operation’s second phase of the ground invasion will begin.

The threat of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza might bring more interest from world leaders but so far this latest round of fighting has received very little international attention. Reuters reported United States President Barack Obama’s statement on November 17 supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, but the President promptly returned to his talks with the leaders of Myanmar.

Saudi Arabia has avoided getting involved and Turkey, who experienced a prickly political spat over the 2010 flotilla incident, has issued little more than rhetoric. It is Egypt alone that currently offers to mediate cease-fire talks and reign in Hamas.

Egypt has an oscillating relationship with Hamas, but as the New York Times reports the new leadership in Cairo is inexperienced in mediation efforts and the Muslim Brotherhood may not have the political support to succeed.

Yet as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute explains, it may be up to Cairo to broker peace. Israel’s goal of limiting the threat from Hamas’s rockets might mimic the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in which ground troops were sent in to root out similar weapons.

Byman points out that this only “deterred Israel’s enemies for so long”. Hamas regrouped and two years later the Israelis are dealing with the same problem, only this time the rockets are more powerful.

This time around, Hamas might be able to cope with reverting back to the normalcy even if their control over Gaza is weakened. However, Israel needs a decisive victory and cannot live with the status quo of absorbing hundreds of rocket attacks. This makes negotiations extremely difficult.

Exactly how the fighting will develop is largely over to the Israelis. Whether Israeli intelligence is satisfied enough to support a costly ground invasion to destroy Hamas’s rockets will dictate the tempo. Hamas will have to wait and see.

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