Is another Israel-Gaza war on the horizon?

The last few days of violence on the Gaza-Israel border are eerily reminiscent of the days leading up to Operation Cast Lead. A recent look at Israeli media points to a possible war.  

By Sol Salbe

The escalation of fighting in the Gaza strip and southern Israel since Saturday is the top news item in the Israeli media. Over 100 rockets fired from the Strip have wounded three Israelis, and Israeli military strikes have killed at least five Palestinians and wounded dozens more.

Haaretz analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharof foresee the next step: Gaza flare-up could lead to another pre-election escalation. “Shifts in dynamics along the Gaza-Israeli border could lead to broader clashes and eventually an IDF ground operation on the eve of the upcoming election in January.”

The clamor for another Israeli massive attack on Gaza is indeed getting louder. Roni Daniel, Israel’s Channel 2  defense reporter, who often acts as a mouthpiece for the powers to be, was quite explicit (from Hebew):

The Palestinian organizations in Gaza have accumulated more and more long-range, accurate and heavy weapons of all types. Their willingness to use them requires us to fundamentally and thoroughly evaluate whether we are indeed confronting a tiger baring its teeth…What remains in question is the issue of resolve. If the political echelon decides that it’s time for a change in this war of attrition game plan, then such action would get underway.

Daniel was far from being the most sanguine: Major General (Ret.) Yom-Tov Samia who used to be in charge of the south, suggested in Ma’ariv [not online but summed up by the Hebrew site Seventh Eye] that if the Hamas government is a terrorist government, Israel should assassinate its leaders and completely block the crossings between Gaza and Egypt.

In the same piece, Uri Elizur calls for the blocking of entry of essential supplies to the Gaza Strip. But he goes further and suggests that Israel has the ability to launch “a non-gentlemanly and non-surgical strike on the basis of an eye for an eye.” Elitzur called for such measures even at the cost of international condemnation. As Oren Persico noted in the Seventh Eye, Elitzur was advocating the deliberate intent to harm civilians, i.e. calling on Israel to commit a war crime.

What is eerie about this particular escalation is the timing. It comes virtually four years to the day when the chain of events that led to the 2008-09 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead). Israel has been extremely successful in blurring that history. The only recent reference that I have seen came in Noam Chomsky’s recent account of his November 4th visit to Gaza:

In 2008 a truce was established between Israel and Hamas… Israel broke the truce under cover of the U.S. election on November 4 2008, invading Gaza on ludicrous grounds and killing half a dozen Hamas members.

Chomsky’s account of no Hamas rockets is only technically accurate. No rockets were fired by Hamas –there were a few rockets launched by much smaller groups. On the whole, however, Hamas maintained a tight rein over those fringe organizations and ensured that the ceasefire was being maintained.

For Israelis, that period is blurred by the many others in which rockets have been firedBut as it so happened, I was making my first return visit to Israel in 43 years and spent some of the time in the region. In those six or seven weeks prior to Israel’s election day there were no rockets, either around the kibbutz or in any of the newspapers. The other thing that struck me at the time is the way my friends spoke about the rockets in the past tense.

All that changed on November 4, 2008. Israel launched a massive raid on a tunnel that it allegedly discovered on that very day. Six Hamas operatives were killed. The Hamas leadership had no choice but to fire their own rockets. The tit-for-tat escalation was rather rapid and the clamor for a massive ground invasion was getting louder and louder.

But the Israeli calculation was correct. The world attention was diverted by the election of the United States’ first ever black President. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharof reported the raid and were quite explicit:

The unusually large incursion was approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, defense officials said… The intelligence report about the tunnel led decision-makers to view it as a “ticking bomb,” army sources said, prompting them to order the raid despite the ceasefire.

Interestingly the writers noted: “Since the ceasefire, the IDF has launched frequent raids across the fence, albeit smaller in scale. The IDF is apparently interested in keeping these incursions low-profile, and they receive little attention in the Israeli media.”

However, the U.S. election eclipsed everything and no one paid any attention, so when Israel blames Hamas for breaking the ceasefire the world bought the story. Even Harel and Issacharof now talk about the ceasefire breaking down using passive speech: “In November 2008, three months before the last election, a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas broke down.”

The question is will we see a repeat performance in the next few months? If the past is any guide, even those who started a war don’t know how they’ll end up.

Sol Salbe is an Israeli-Australian journalist and translator based in Melbourne. He has spent the last 13 years as a full-time monitor of the Israeli media looking particularly at the differences between Hebrew and English-language coverage of events. His specializes in translating and disseminating articles, and segments of articles, which have not been made available in English.