What just happened in Gaza? It depends which version you want. The Israeli one, rapidly disseminated through media, was that it had “elminated” Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jabari and attacked Hamas weapons infrastructure to stop the rain of rockets firing into southern Israel. The Islamist group Hamas has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006, the same number of years that the area has been under a crippling siege. The rapid Israeli dissemination, by the way, included army tweets of a video clip showing the moment a rocket dropped on Jabari’s car and this message: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low-level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
This “targeted assassination”, which killed at least eight others, including two children, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment broke a shaky truce that Egypt had just mediated. In the past weeks, Israel has killed civilians in Gaza, including three children, and wounded dozens more, while Israeli soldiers and civilians have been wounded in attacks from Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for the attacks, even though most of it comes from other fighter groups which Hamas is struggling to control. Now, the Islamist movement has said that Israel has “opened the gates of hell” and is retaliating with a blitz of rockets – three Israeli civilians are reported dead, while residents in the south have been urged to stay indoors. This could get bigger and more deadly.
The parallels with Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in late 2008 are clear. Then, around 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians, were killed in a bloody, 22-day offensive that Israel launched just after Obama was sworn-in as president and just before an Israeli election. Yesterday, Zehava Galon, who chairs Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, described the Israeli government as: “A team of pyromaniacs that want to cause war on the eve of elections.” The assessment is that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defence minister Ehud Barak are showing some of the forceful leadership that Israelis seem to love at the ballot box. War, or course, removes other issues – such as rising social discontent – from the campaign agenda for elections taking place in late January 2013. Now Israeli politicians of all the main parties are backing Netanyahu’s strikes on Gaza – to do otherwise, when the war drums are beating, would be tantamount to treason and an electoral turn-off. When Israeli army radio reported the Meretz quote about pyromaniacs, the presenters added that it was hard to believe Israeli Jews were saying such things.
So once again Gazans are trapped in a sealed strip and terrorised by heavy bombardment – from airstrikes and gunships, while Israel has said that ground troops are on stand-by, too. Thirteen Palestinians are reported dead.
But the assault carries more risk for Israel this time, given the dramatic changes in the Middle East. Israel no longer has the tacit support of a compliant president Mubarak in Egypt, nor does it have Turkey as ally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is like a mothership for Hamas; it has said that Egypt: “will not allow the Palestinians to be subjected to Israeli aggression, as in the past”. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Israel, while the Israeli envoy in Cairo was also told to pack his bags.
Israel says the goal this time is not to remove Hamas (as was the objective in 2008) but to reassert Israel’s “deterrence” capability – or in other, more stomach-turning words, to strike until it is deemed that the lesson has been learned.