Thursday, 22 November 2012

Update: Cease-fire declared in Israel-Gaza conflict

Another conflict has boiled over into fighting between Hamas and Israel this week. Jerusalem is calling the operation “Pillar of Defence” with Hamas rockets blasting skyward from the Gaza Strip as Israel conducts retaliatory strikes.

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.
As the week closes though, the rocket launches have fallen silent. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on November 21.
The truce is tenuous at best and there are still some unanswered questions. The strategic objectives for each have not yet been met and threats to both Hamas and Israel remain high.
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, this gives Hamas motive to press on with their rocket launches.
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.
If the cease-fire holds, Hamas will be closer to achieving their needed symbolic victory.
The Israelis on the other hand have different reasons for maintaining momentum. Hamas has displayed a new capability by launching rockets over 70 kilometres from Gaza into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, an unprecedented show of ability by the group.
Unless Hamas has been able to manufacture significantly longer range missiles domestically, the rockets are probably Iranian-manufactured Fajr-5 missiles.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) indicated these rockets were the “red line” instigating the concerted Israeli airstrike campaign.
According to Reuters the IDF has conducted over three hundred airstrikes over Gaza in the last few days. Locating and destroying the launching sites of these missiles and the rockets themselves are currently the number one priority for the IDF.
Israel defence sources talking to the Jerusalem Post say Palestinian militants have launched approximately 2000 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip since January.
So far in November more than 1000 extra rockets have been launched at Israeli cities since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defence.
Up until November 14, Jerusalem had restrained any direct pre-emptive or retaliatory actions to stop these attacks. Although many of these weapons land relatively harmlessly in empty fields, some struck populated areas in Israel.
A new Israeli made missile-defence system called Iron Dome has been responsible for intercepting many rockets bound for populated areas. The interceptor’s developers proclaim a 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 appeared since November 20. Whether this means Israeli strikes were successful or whether Hamas are holding on to them to avoid a ground invasion is unknown.
If Jerusalem feels those rockets remain a threat to Israel 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 with Israel, has issued little more than rhetoric. It is Egypt that has been at the forefront of offers to mediate cease-fire talks and reign in Hamas.
Israel does not fully trust the Muslim Brotherhood to enforce a truce and Egypt has an oscillating relationship with Hamas.
Yet as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute explains, it may be up to Cairo to maintain 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.
Mr Byman points out this effort only “deterred Israel’s enemies for so long”. Hamas quickly regrouped and two years later the Israelis are dealing with the same problem, and the rockets are more powerful now.
This time around, Hamas might be able to cope with reverting to 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. The distance between the two has made negotiations extremely difficult.
To hold onto the cease-fire, Hamas will need to honour the truce and control the various splinter groups in the Palestinian territories. But if Israel cannot guarantee that Hamas’s Fajr-5 long-range rockets are negated, they will retain the option of a ground operation.

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