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Modes of engagement: Pause in Israeli escalation raises questions about next steps in Gaza
 
 
By the fence – The Great March of Return - Courtesy: Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry Media Center
 

Between 7 am and 10 pm on Tuesday, 114 projectiles were fired by the Quds Brigades (the military wing of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine) and the Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas) at Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip following several Israeli airstrikes. The Israeli military claims that the Iron Dome intercepted a number of them.

Conflicting reports of a ceasefire brokered by Egypt emerged late Tuesday night as the shelling on both sides continued through the night. According to a Hamas statement published in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a “consensus was reached to return to ceasefire understandings,” after “many mediation efforts intervened during the past hours.” Senior Israeli officials denied reports of Egypt intervention in comments to Kann News on Wednesday, and a senior Israeli defense source told the Jerusalem Post that the Palestinian shelling had stopped because of the strikes the IDF carried out. “Israel has delivered a message that if the fire resumes, the attacks on Hamas and the other groups will intensify,” he said.

With Tuesday marking the largest military escalation since 2014 and the efforts at mediation that punctuated the shelling, the consequences of these unprecedented developments remain unclear as observers continue to speculate about both Israel and Palestinian resistance groups’ next steps.

Tuesday’s shelling

There have been moderate casualties reported in this most recent escalation between Israeli forces and Palestinian factions.  According to the Israeli Channel 10, six settlers and one soldier were moderately injured by mortar shells in the Eshkol settlement. Four Quds Brigades and Qassam Brigades fighters were killed on Sunday and Monday by Israeli tank shelling on positions belonging to the two groups in the Gaza Strip.

Israel attributed the Tuesday shelling to the Quds Brigades, but the Israeli military responded by bombing Hamas military sites, as the Gaza Strip is under its control. The targets were sites in the center of the strip, rather than lookout points on the border that are usually targeted.

According to Israeli reports, the Israeli military bombed seven sites that belong to the Islamic Jihad Movement and Hamas on Tuesday afternoon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to deliver a “harsh response” in a Tuesday afternoon speech, following Palestinian factions’ shelling of regions adjacent to the Gaza Strip earlier in the day.

At a conference in the occupied area of Jalil, Netanyahu said that he views the attacks with “utmost gravity” and sees “Hamas as having responsibility to prevent [them].”

Tuesday’s mortar shelling was the largest in one day since the 2014 war, according to Amir Bohbot, the military correspondent for the Israeli Walla! News website. Bohbot notes that the current escalation is the most serious in four years.

The Qassam Brigades and the Quds Brigades released a statement on Tuesday evening, in which they jointly claimed responsibility for launching dozens of projectiles at Israeli sites and settlements near Gaza. The bombing, the statement reads, was a response to the “brute Israeli aggression and [Israel’s] crimes.”

Since March 30, Israeli forces have killed at least 121 unarmed Palestinian protesters and injured thousands more near the fence between the Gaza Strip and southern Israel. The mass protests were organized to demand Palestinians’ right to return to the lands and homes they had been displaced from with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, also released a statement, which Mada Masr obtained a copy of. “The resistance will not leave any one faction alone prey to the occupation—for our belief is one. Our people are one. Our resistance is one. Our blood is one. And our enemy is one,” the statement reads.

According to observers, the Palestinian resistance has successfully dictated new rules of engagement with the Israeli military. “The situation is developing rapidly, indeed. But it is a controlled, restrained and carefully considered development. Each party is keeping the ball on its own side [to maintain the possibility for future action]. The resistance has sent a message, and Israel is moving in a way that shows that it has received the message and is acting accordingly,” says political analyst Thabet al-Emour.

“It is too early for the rules to be [effectively] changed or for a war to be set off. It may even be unlikely,” Emour says. “The proceedings on the ground are an exchange of messages, but these messages are cryptic.”

Israeli military authorities released a series of statements on Tuesday morning, claiming in one that the Israeli Air Force had struck an “attack tunnel” in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, east of the city of Rafah.

According to the statement, the tunnel is 2 km long, and extends 900 meters into Israel. Palestinian sources who spoke to Mada Masr say that the tunnel in question was used to transport goods into the Gaza Strip to circumvent the blockade.

The Israeli military spokesperson stated that the tunnel belonged to Hamas, and that it was used for “smuggling and terrorism” purposes. According to the spokesperson, a segment of the tunnel is under the Egyptian border area.

But a Qassam Brigades military source refutes that claim. “This tunnel was already found previously, and it was bombed several times,” he tells Mada Masr. “Israel is not so foolish that it would squander the significant achievement of discovering a tunnel with such advanced capabilities by announcing it at a time of such tension.”

Israel bombed a dozen “attack tunnels” in 2018, but Hamas asserts that all recently discovered tunnels had already been bombed before.

Concurrently, the Freedom Flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli navy on Tuesday morning. The flotilla had set sail from Gaza bound for Cyprus in an attempt to break the 12-year maritime blockade. According to Maan News Agency, the Israeli navy towed the ships to the Ashdod port.

But Palestinian press sources announced that following the seizure of the last ships, Gaza activists are preparing to embark on another attempt.

Negotiations

Meanwhile, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that there have been talks conducted in Cairo between the senior leaders of the Islamic Jihad Movement and the Egyptians. Mada Masr approached high-ranking sources in the movement as well as Hamas for a comment, and they denied that the talks took place.

However, a high-profile Hamas source says that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations are maintaining contact with all parties, but without coordination and away from the spotlight. The purpose of these talks, according to the source, is to make progress in reaching an understanding between Hamas and Israel.

“Hamas has not yet become a direct party to the long-term truce talks. There are advanced talks being conducted by Qatar, Egypt and other countries, as well as UN representatives,” says the source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

This account was corroborated by high-ranking Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil. “There have yet to be any proposals to end the Great March of Return and break the siege. There is nothing but maneuvers exercised by the occupation to prompt us to end [the struggle for] return.”

“Any proposal that does not involve a complete and comprehensive lift of the siege will not be acceptable,” Bardawil says in an exclusive interview with Mada Masr.

Hamas’s aims are clear, according to political analyst Akram Atallah. “Hamas will not accept anything less than a complete lift of the Israeli siege. It also wants strong and substantial guarantees to maintain that lift and access to the seaport and the airport.” Atallah argues that, while the matter is complicated, it appears that the situation is volatile and subject to a range of developments.

For Yossi Melman, a military analyst at the Israeli newspaper Maariv, there are three possible scenarios that may emerge from the escalation. “The first scenario: The air force wages a large-scale assault. This is already happening, according to reports in Gaza. The second scenario: Hamas responds to the escalation, which would lead to a war. The third scenario: A limited truce is reached, including a complete cease-fire, a prisoner exchange and the launch of an economic rehabilitation process for the Gaza Strip, involving Egypt, the European Union, the US and the Palestinian Authority.”

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Hamza Abu Eltarabesh