Nine weeks ahead of elections, Israel has launched a wave of air strikes in Gaza — a move that could consolidate domestic opinion behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also risk worsening ties with Egypt and a wider conflict in the region.
Israel has followed up the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, a top Hamas commander, with more strikes on Thursday, after the Gaza-based group counterattacked with rockets. The Israelis claim their bombardment has eliminated Hamas’ long range rockets in sizeable numbers.
The casualty list on account of the tit-for-tat strikes has begun to grow, with Israeli strikes killing at least 13 Palestinians, including three on Thursday in Khan Younis. The Health Ministry in Gaza said at least 70 Palestinians were wounded, including 15 children and 18 women.
But in its far from toothless response, Hamas deployed rockets to kill three Israelis in Kiryat Malachi, where the top floor of a four storey apartment was blown up.
These killings are likely to trigger a surge in violence, feeding on Israel’s culture of meeting fire-with-fire, which might become hard to contain.
Hamas has already announced that the Israeli attack amounted to a declaration of war. The fury among the group’s supporters in Gaza was on show as they assembled, in their thousands, outside Shifa hospital, where Jabari’s body had been taken.
“We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight”, many angry Palestinians chanted, while armed men fired volley of shots in the air.
On their part, the Israelis have already made it clear that their operations are unlikely to end anytime soon. Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli military spokesman has asserted that the operation, named Pillar of Defence “would continue and grow”. Separately, the military has maintained that the purpose of the strikes is to “severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership” — something that is unlikely to be accomplished in quick time. Others inside its establishment have said that Israel wants to strengthen its “deterrence” capability by using credible force.
The Israelis have followed up the killer strike on Jaabri, with a clever indulgence in psychological warfare. On its Twitter page, the Israeli military said: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
Iran, Egypt condemn strikes
Notwithstanding the hubris, the Israelis may have risked much by attacking Gaza. Analysts point out that the Israel has endangered its ties with Gaza’s neighbour Egypt — the pillar of Israeli security to the south. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — the parent organisation of country’s new President Mohamed Morsy — has responded furiously to Jabari’s assassination. In a statement, the group recommended that “the Egyptian government must be the first to [cut ties], and serve as an example to Arabs and Muslims who maintain relations with this entity [Israel]”.
The Brothers exhorted Egyptians to show up on the streets and in front of major mosques in Cairo and other major cities. A call for a mass rally in front of the iconic al-Azhar mosque after Friday prayers has also been issued.
In response to the Gaza strikes, Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Israel. On Thursday Mr. Morsy appeared on Egyptian television and warned that “we do not accept this aggression, which can only lead to instability in the region”. The President added that he had spoken to his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama on “the need to put an end to this aggression and to ensure it does not happen again”. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but demands for its modification have been growing after the exit of former President, Hosni Mubarak.
With the fall-out of the Gaza strikes making an impression across the region, Iran has said that the Israel’s decision to use force will emerge counterproductive. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian observed that “new players and the new atmosphere in the region will deprive the criminal Zionists [Israel] of the opportunity for any aggression”. The Lebanese Hizbollah — an ally of Iran has also condemned the Gaza attacks.