DUBAI: What began as a routine Israeli security operation on August 1 in a burning Palestinian town in the West Bank quickly turned into a full-fledged conflict. As of Sunday evening, the death toll on the Palestinian side stood at 43, including 15 children, with an Egyptian-brokered truce deal offering a ray of hope to the war-weary population of the Gaza Strip.
The target of the Israeli army’s “Operation Breaking Dawn” was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which is backed by Iran and has its headquarters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. But the idea of a “quick and clean war”, with minimal civilian suffering and confined to the Gaza Strip alone, could still elude Israel if the ceasefire agreement fails.
During a recent visit to Tehran to meet Iranian leaders, Ziad Al-Nakhalah, the PIJ’s general secretary, warned that all Israeli cities – including Tel Aviv – could be hit by rockets and urged others Palestinian factions to join forces. For days, Israeli media had shown images of the skies above the southern and central parts of the country lit up by rockets and interceptors from the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Predictably, parallels have been drawn between the current outbreak and the 11-day conflict in May 2021 that left more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis dead. The big difference this time was that Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza, did not jump into the fray, a move that cannot be ruled out if the truce does not hold and civilian casualties continue to mount.
As is invariably the case when Israel launches an assault on Palestinian militant groups, ordinary residents of Gaza neighborhoods in the army’s sights pay the highest price. Images of half-destroyed buildings and damaged property of impoverished civilians starkly contradict the official Israeli narrative of “a pre-emptive counterterrorism operation against an immediate threat” posed by the PIJ.
On Saturday, flames erupted from a building in Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike as injured Palestinians were evacuated by medics. Gaza’s health ministry reported that “a five-year-old girl, targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among those killed. “It’s not Ukraine!” This is the #Gaza Strip yesterday!” Jasika, a Palestinian, tweeted, along with four photos of destruction under the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.
Abdullah Al-Arayshi summed up the collective plight of Palestinians in Gaza when he told AFP news agency: “The country is devastated. We are tired of wars. Our generation has lost its future. The reference was to the many wars and battles that Israel and Hamas have waged since 2007 which have imposed a staggering cost on the 2 million Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza.
Egypt, whose mediation helped end numerous Gaza flare-ups in the past, stepped in once again, apparently sending a delegation of officials to Israel to mediate. The PIJ leadership may not have been in the mood to negotiate, but its options were limited.
On Saturday, the group lost a second senior commander, Khaled Mansour, in an Israeli military strike on a house in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza. The day before, the PIJ acknowledged the death of top leader Taysir Al-Jabari in an airstrike on a building west of Gaza City.
The killing of Al-Jabari’s predecessor, Baha Abu Al-Ata, in Gaza by the Israeli army in 2019 sparked a five-day conflict that left 34 Palestinians dead, including many PIJ fighters, and 111 injured. Then, as now, Israel claimed the PIJ was planning an imminent attack.
This time around, Israel said PIJ militants in Gaza planned to strike southern Israel in retaliation for the August 1 arrest of Bassem Al-Saadi, a senior member of the PIJ’s political wing in the West Bank. , during a security operation in Jenin. Al-Saadi had lived there since February 2013, when he was released from an Israeli prison after serving two years.
Jenin has been a frequent target of Israeli arrest operations in the West Bank since a wave of deadly attacks by Palestinians hit Israel in late March when two of the attackers came from the city.
“It appears that Israel acted on intelligence reports that the PIJ was about to launch a number of attacks against Israel and Israel decided to take the initiative in this matter to deal a major blow to the PIJ Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer and Middle East analyst at Reichman University, told Arab News.
“Based on this thesis, it was difficult for Israel to avoid this action. If you know your enemy is going to attack, then you take the initiative away from them, and that really turns the tables on your enemy.
Israel’s reasoning, however, has failed to convince not only Palestinian civilians in the line of fire, but also critics of the preventive force military doctrine, including the UN special rapporteur on occupied Palestinian territories.
In a tweet on Saturday, Francesca Albanese said: “I condemn Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza to supposedly ‘deter’ possible retaliation by Islamic Jihad for the arrest of its leader. As international law only permits the use of force in self-defence, Operation Breaking Dawn is a flagrant act of aggression. Illegal. Immoral. Irresponsible.”
In addition to the diplomatic reaction, the Israeli government, led by Yair Lapid, a politician with no military background or experience in high security posts, would sooner or later have had to deal with the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.
There has been almost no reconstruction in Gaza since the May 2021 war, and the population remains mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel has closed its crossing with the territory, and on Saturday reports said the only power plant was closed after Israel canceled a planned fuel delivery.
Yahya Al-Sarraj, the mayor of Gaza City, said Sunday that municipal services were affected by the lack of electricity. “This will minimize the domestic water supply (at a time of peak consumption in July and August),” he said. “Raw sewage will be dumped into the sea as factories are not operating at full capacity.”
Unsurprisingly, the potential for a propaganda stunt has not been lost on PIJ bosses in Tehran. President Ebrahim Raisi was quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency as saying that “the resistance of the people of Gaza will hasten the decline of this child-killing (Zionist) regime”.
Separately, in remarks reported by Iranian state television on Saturday, General Hossein Salami, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said: “The Israelis will still pay a heavy price for their recent crime.
Earlier, Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Salami as saying: “In Lebanon, tens of thousands, if not more than a hundred thousand missiles, are ready to be fired to create hell for the Zionists at the time of carrying out divine predestination. .
Javedanfar sees the PIJ’s connection to Iran as a second likely reason for Israel’s decision to suppress the group. “Given that the Israeli attacks occurred when the PIJ leader was in Tehran, the Iranian context of the current operation cannot be overlooked,” he told Arab News.
“The PIJ is an Iranian proxy, much more of an Iranian proxy than Hamas, and is more dependent on Iran than Hamas. Israel does not want to let Iran dictate the rules of the game through its proxy in Gaza. I think Israel is trying to disarm Iran’s options to undermine Israeli security both in Gaza and in Syria.
Lapid, the Israeli Prime Minister, said that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza but it will not hesitate either”. A wider conflict would certainly expose Israel not only to higher civilian casualties, but also to greater political heat, including potentially from the Arab signatories to the Abraham Accords.
In the most cautious scenario for Israel, the military wing of the PIJ would have been decapitated, the civilian death toll in Gaza would have remained low, and the diplomatic storm would have passed quickly. But given the dark shadow that the Palestinian conflict continues to cast on the Arab-Israeli alignments that are reshaping the geopolitics of the Middle East, Israel could still have ended up winning the battle while losing the war.