A serious escalation of violence has erupted in the past two days between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip. In the last 36 hours 155 rockets have been fired on Israel, only 40 or so of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 40% of Israel (3.5 million people) is under fire. Rockets have reached as far north as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Zikhron Ya'akov, just 37 km south of Haifa, and Hadera, 116km north of Gaza. Most of them fell in open areas. Missiles were also intercepted above Ben Gurion international airport. Bomb shelters have been opened in most areas of the country.
In response to the continued rocket fire, some claimed by Hamas and some by Islamic Jihad, Israel announced Operation Protective Edge late Monday night. At least 435 attacks have been made on Gaza hitting 550 targets, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired 225 rockets at Israel since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. The Israeli Air Force attacked 80 targets in just one hour on Wednesday night, hitting “arms, terror infrastructures, command systems, Hamas institutions, regime buildings, terrorists' houses, and killing terrorists of various ranks of command” according to defence minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has indicated that a ground invasion is becoming increasingly likely and necessary, stating that “Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army”. Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister Danny Dannon (Likud) has gone as far as suggesting that Israel cut gas and electricity to Gaza, which is already in short supply. He claims that the electricity and fuel provided by Israel is used for the shooting of rockets. Five Hamas fighters were killed as they attempted to land on Zikim beach, just north of the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday near Kinnutz Zikim.
On Wednesday, two armed divers were discovered making their way to this same beach, reportedly with a view to attacking to Kibbbutz. Hamas has also targeted the nuclear reactor at Dimona. The IDF says it has hit at least 120 concealed rocket launchers as well as the homes of Hamas leaders. Palestinians claim that 43 Palestinians have died so far in Operation Protective Edge, including an 80 year old woman and 8 children. At least 29 of those killed are said to be civilians. More than 370 are reported to be wounded.
An IAF spokesman said today that there are “thousands more” possible targets in the Gaza Strip, thus this military intervention does not look like it will be short-lived. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Hamas of committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people, and has called on the UN and Egypt to help. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that Hamas is using civilians as human shields, deliberately firing from civilian populated areas. Egypt is reportedly in contact with both sides in an attempt to put an end to the violence. It has been announced in the past few minutes that Egypt’s Rafah crossing will be opened to allow the evacuation of wounded Palestinians.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has released a statement on the situation in Gaza, saying “There are no indications that the violence is likely to recede in the coming days. Continuous targeting bombing of Gaza, including the killing of civilians by Israel, points to a more protracted crisis unfolding. The streets of Gaza last night and today are virtually empty and almost all shops are closed. The population is extremely concerned at the possibility of even greater violence in the coming hours and days, particularly a ground incursion”.
In Jerusalem, tensions remain particularly high following last weeks riots in Shuafat and Beit Hanina after the murder and burning to death of an Arab youth in what appears to have been a revenge attack for the deaths of three Israeli teens. Last night crowds of right wing Jews chanting “Death to Arabs” were stopping cars in downtown Jerusalem, checking the drivers’ ethnicities, presumably looking for Palestinian or Arab drivers. One Jerusalemite commented that she has never experienced such inter-ethnic tension in the city. An Israeli lawmaker, Ayelet Shaked, made an inflammatory call on her Facebook page claiming that the entire Palestinian people are the enemy (“Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people”). She continued, quoting a previously unpublished article by Uri Elitzur:
“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honour and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there”. This post received almost 5000 likes.
The current escalation in violence is seen as normal by many Israelis, known simply as “cutting the grass”- a cycle to be repeated every few years in order to manage the conflict and prevent Hamas becoming strong enough to pose a real threat. The difference is that this time it comes at a time of extreme tension, hatred and anger on both sides following the murders and kidnapping of young Israelis and one young Palestinian. Netanyahu has warned that “The army is ready for all possibilities”.