Gaza and Israel enter shaky ceasefire; many predict it to be short-lived

The Israeli Air Force arrived at this fight with a longer-than-usual list of intelligence targets, striking enemy sites and personnel. But questions center on what comes next.

Israeli soldiers seen near IDF tanks stationed near the Israeli border with Gaza on May 6, 2019. Credit: Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
Israeli soldiers seen near IDF tanks stationed near the Israeli border with Gaza on May 6, 2019. Credit: Aharon Krohn/Flash90.

An ultra-violent yet brief conflict that erupted between Gazan terror factions and Israel came to an abrupt end early on Monday morning, as an unstable ceasefire took hold.

The hostilities began on Friday, when the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) organization launched a sniper attack on Israel Defense Forces’ Personnel, wounding an officer. The attack came just as Hamas and PIJ representatives were sitting with Egyptian authorities in Cairo, seeking to hammer out a long-term arrangement for Gaza.

According to Israeli assessments, this is an indication that Hamas failed to exert full control over the Gaza Strip, and that PIJ, which has been sabotaging attempts to bring calm to Gaza, can detonate the arena whenever it chooses to do so.

If “two heads” control Gaza rather than one, then it will require an extraordinary effort to stabilize the Strip and prevent another escalation.

Hamas, for its own reasons, joined the PIJ’s offensive after the wheels of escalation began to turn. Despite being Gaza’s ruling regime, Hamas appears to be deterred by PIJ and willing to jump on its bandwagon. Hamas’s hope is to extort Israel into enabling further financial assistance to pour into Gaza from a variety of sources, and preventing an economic and infrastructure collapse, which could lead to a popular rebellion by Gazans against their militant Islamist regime.

As a result of this complex cocktail of factors, PIJ and Hamas took a major risk and gambled on Israeli restraint, due to the upcoming Israel Independence Day celebrations and Eurovision song contest, which the terror-faction leaders assumed Israel would safeguard by playing down its responses to the indiscriminate rocket fire on millions of civilians.

A day after Israel responded to the PIJ sniper attack by hitting a Hamas post, killing three terrorist operatives, the Gazan terror factions fired wildly and massively at southern Israel, from rocket-launchers embedded in built-up Gazan areas.

The terror factions sought to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense batteries. They launched extremely heavy salvos—a total of some 690 projectiles—most of them at southern Israeli cities, towns and villages.

Residents of Israel’s south were unable to leave their safe rooms or bomb shelters, and heard frequent rocket sirens and blasts. Despite Iron Dome’s high performance, some rockets got through, hitting 21 buildings and causing the deaths of three Israeli civilians on the ground. A fourth civilian was killed by a Hamas anti-tank missile attack on his vehicle near the border.

The Israeli Air Force arrived at this fight with a longer-than-usual list of intelligence targets, striking enemy sites and personnel in an ever-escalating manner. The IAF’s attack plan appeared to cause real pain to both Hamas and PIJ.

Israel struck some 350 enemy targets and killed around 30 terrorist operatives in its campaign, dubbed “Operation Closed Garden.” For the first time since 2014, Israel activated a policy of targeted assassinations, killing two senior terror figures with airstrikes, including Ahmed Khudari, who was responsible for substantial cash transfers from Iran to Gaza’s factions.

In a first, the IDF also struck a Hamas building from which the military wing’s cyber array operated out of. The array was in the middle of an attempt to launch a cyber-attack on Israel—an attack thwarted by the Shin Bet.

In addition, the air force destroyed the homes of 10 terrorist commanders that had weapons hidden in them. A PIJ cross-border tunnel sneaking into Israel under the border was also destroyed. The air force demolished six multistory buildings in Gaza that the factions had taken over and were using as command centers.

According to a report by Maariv, the IDF now assesses that while the escalation has, to a certain extent, boosted Israeli deterrence against Gazan terror organizations, the quiet will be short-lived in the absence of economic steps to stabilize Gaza’s economic and humanitarian situation.

Gaza is seen by the Israeli defense establishment as the most explosive arena, though the West Bank is also an area of higher concern, which could “catch fire” for its own reasons.

The IDF appears to believe that PIJ was surprised by the intensity of Israel’s retaliation. The fact that it was significantly targeted by Israel’s air power, with some 40 targets belonging to the Iranian-backed group destroyed and an estimated 11 operatives killed, represents a new level of targeted responses against Gaza’s second-largest armed faction.

The instability of the current ceasefire was reflected in comments made by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Monday, who said that the military will continue to attack as much “as is necessary.”

Kochavi also addressed the inherent challenges of targeting a terrorist army operating out of crowded urban neighborhoods that “hides among its civilians.” He added that Israel’s enemies nevertheless “witnessed the power of the IDF and the security agencies, which destroyed hundreds of terror targets, including command centers, weapons storage facilities, infrastructure and apparent civilian buildings that turned into terrorist nests.”

The Middle East has, in recent decades “changed beyond recognition,” Kochavi added at another speech on Monday. Ultimately, despite advances in air-power precision and intelligence, the ground offensive remains central to Israel’s ability to decisively destroy the enemy’s fighting force and assets, stated Kochavi.

For the time being, Israel has chosen not to launch a ground offensive, relying on air campaigns instead. But the IDF’s armored forces are stationed at the gates of Gaza nevertheless, ready for the order.

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