16 Nov 2012

What is behind the violence in Gaza?

With Israel’s general election due in January, and the Palestinian Authority’s application for UN recognition, the assassination of Hamas’s military chief did not happen in isolation.

Israeli armoured personnel carriers near the border with the gaza strip (Getty)

The violence escalated on Wednesday when Israel began Operation Pillar Cloud, what it called a “widespread campaign” against militant targets. The Israeli Defence Forces assassinated Ahmed al-Jaabari the head of the military wing of Gaza’s ruling party Hamas in a rocket attack on Gaza.

Israel said there had been an increase in rocket fire from the troubled region but there appear to be other factors which may have influenced Israel’s decision to act.

Its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who currently sits in a coalition government, faces elections in January which nonetheless he is tipped to win. Some analysts believe Israel’s latest actions are connected to the re-election campaign. In late October, Mr Netanyahu announced he was merging his Likud party with the ultra nationalist Israel Beiteinu party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a strong supporter of settlements and himself a settler in the occupied territory of the West Bank.

Israel could be sucked into a ground war that it probably didn’t plan and doesn’t want. Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House

Mr Lieberman caused a fracture in his country’s relationship with Turkey when he refused to apologise for an attack on a Turkish ship which tried to break the blockade on Gaza to bring aid to the region.

Mr Netanyahu said running for election with Mr Lieberman would help create “a clear mandate that will allow me to focus on the main issues, rather than trifles.

“In Israel, the prime minister needs a big, cohesive force behind him,” he said. But the move has not been popular among more doveish elements in Israeli politics such as Zehava Gal-On of Meretz who believe it will lead to international isolation.


Israel’s immediate security is one of these main issues, especially the threat from Iran, which the Jewish state considered attacking unilaterally following a stand-off over Iran’s nuclear development programme and which despite a lull in hostilities continues to be of concern to Israel.

And Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank told Channel 4 News there are indications that Iran may have links to the current Gaza violence: “Some reports suggest the fire seems to have been started by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is close to Iran.

“In the background, for more than a year, Qatar, Jordan and other Gulf states have been trying to prise Hamas away from its recent alliance with Iran in return for stronger support from the Arab world.

“Iran may be trying to wreck this by dragging Hamas back into a military conflict where it needs its Iranian rockets.

“But for Netanyahu it is primarily the elections that will be on his mind – a right-wing politician like him can’t afford not to respond, but the response has been heavy and has killed civilians, and the Palestinian escalation also presents him with some risks.

“Israel could be sucked into a ground war that it probably didn’t plan and doesn’t want.”

She points out that prior to the most recent attacks, Gaza had been relatively peaceful: “Until recently Hamas had been keeping Gaza quiet, though short of a ceasefire. It had no visible rewards from Israel or west, but some progress in getting aid from the gulf, especially Qatar, as highlighted by the emir’s recent visit.

“While Israel was not ready to break the bloackade, there were some contacts – highlighted by Gershon Baskin, an Israeli who was involved – aimed at establishing a longer term ceasefire which might have led to opening Rafah and helping boost the economy, complementing the Gulf aid, These have been wrecked. Baskin argues it may have been intended as a spoiler.”

Critical threats

An additional threat, as far as Israel is concerned, is the Palestinian attempt to win recognition from the UN as a “UN non-observer state” a move backed by the Arab League, which meets on Saturday to discuss its response to the Gaza situation. The Palestinians plan to meet at the UN at the end of November.

Ahead of this bid and prior to the recent escalation in the number of attacks, Israel had been trying to strike a deal with Palestinian officials involving Israel declaring limited recognition of Palestinian statehood in return for Palestine calling off its UN bid.

Australian Jewish author and blogger Antony Loewenstein said one of the reasons why Israel is concerned about Palestine’s recognition by the UN is that this would open the way for them to launch legal action for war crimes against Israeli politicians and officials.

The attacks have happened at a highly volatile time for the region. Following the Arab uprisings, Israel finds its neighbour influential Egypt (which is the only other state to share a border with Gaza) is less automatically compliant than it was under former leader Hosni Mubarak. However, the new President Mohammed Mursi is also treading carefully in his relations with Hamas which has close ties with Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies.

Added to this the upsurge in hostilities in the buffer zone of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula from where it is believed arms and munitions are smuggled through tunnels into Gaza and it is clear that the Israeli state is facing a number of critical threats to its security.

Israelis survey damage from a rocket that hit the southern city of Ashod (Reuters)