Battles between Israel and Palestinian groups trap Gaza in a recurring nightmare

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Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes on residential building in Gaza on Aug. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
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Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City on Aug. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
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Children react following an Israeli air strike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Aug.6, 2022. (AFP)
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An Israeli soldier prepares to fire artillery shells toward the Gaza Strip from their position along the border with the Palestinian enclave on Aug. 6, 2022. (AFP)
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Mourners carry the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, during their funeral ceremony inside a mosque on August 7, 2022. (Said Khatib / AFP)
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A picture taken on August 5, 2022, shows Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza City in retaliation to earlier Israeli air strikes. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)
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Updated 21 August 2022

Battles between Israel and Palestinian groups trap Gaza in a recurring nightmare

  • Humanitarian situation worsened and civilian toll rose as Israeli military targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad
  • Israel claimed militants in Gaza were planning attacks in retaliation for arrest of a PIJ official in the West Bank

DUBAI: What began as a routine Israeli security operation on Aug. 1 in a flashpoint Palestinian town in the West Bank, in the space of just a few days, took on the trappings of a full-blown conflict. By Sunday night, the death toll on the Palestinian side had soared to 44, including 15 children, when an Egyptian-brokered surprise truce brought welcome relief to the Gaza Strip’s war-weary population.

The target of the Israeli military’s “Operation Breaking Dawn” was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, which is backed by Iran and has its headquarters in the Syrian capital Damascus. But the goal of a “quick, clean war,” causing maximum damage to the PIJ with minimal civilian suffering and confined to just the Gaza Strip, could yet elude Israel if the ceasefire deal falls through.

During a recent visit to Tehran to meet the Iranian leadership, Ziad Al-Nakhalah, the PIJ general-secretary, warned that all Israeli towns — including Tel Aviv — could be struck by rockets and urged other Palestinian factions to join forces. For days, Israeli media had been showing images of the skies above the southern and central parts of the country lighting up with rockets and interceptors from the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Predictably, parallels were being drawn between the latest flare-up 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 which controls Gaza, did not jump into the fray, a move that cannot be ruled out if the truce fails to hold and civilian casualties continue to mount.




 Children react following an Israeli air strike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Aug.6, 2022. (AFP)

As is invariably the case when Israel launches an assault on Palestinian militant groups, ordinary residents of Gaza neighborhoods in the military’s crosshairs paid the biggest price. Images of half-destroyed buildings and damaged possessions of impoverished civilians starkly contradicted the official Israeli narrative of “a pre-emptive counterterror operation against an immediate threat” posed by the PIJ.

On Saturday, flames poured out of a building in Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike while wounded 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. “This is not Ukraine! This is #Gaza Strip yesterday!” tweeted Jasika, a Palestinian, along with four photos of destruction under the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.




Mourners pray over the bodies of six children killed in an explosion in Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip on  Aug. 6, 2022. (AP/Abdel Kareem Hana) 

Abdullah Al-Arayshi summed up the collective plight of Palestinians in Gaza when he told the AFP news agency: “The country is ravaged. We’ve had enough of wars. Our generation has lost its future.” The reference was to the many wars and battles Israel and Hamas have fought since 2007 and which have imposed a staggering cost on Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents.




Palestinians inspect the ruins of a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on August 6, 2022. (AFP)

Egypt, whose mediation has helped to end many Gaza flare-ups in the past, once again stepped in, reportedly sending a delegation of officials to Israel to act as a go-between. 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 previous day, the PIJ had acknowledged the death of senior leader Taysir Al-Jabari in an airstrike on a building in the west of Gaza City.




Relatives react during the funeral of Khaled Mansour, an Islamic Jihad commander killed in an Israeli air strike on Rafah on August 7, 2022. (Said Khatib / AFP)

The killing of Al-Jabari’s predecessor, Baha Abu Al-Ata, in Gaza by the Israeli military in 2019 sparked a five-day conflict that left 34 Palestinians, including many PIJ fighters, dead and 111 injured. Then, as now, Israel claimed that the PIJ was plotting an imminent attack.

This time around, Israel said that PIJ militants in Gaza were planning to hit southern Israel in retaliation for the arrest of Bassem Al-Saadi, a senior member of the PIJ’s political wing in the West Bank, during the Aug. 1 security operation in Jenin. Al-Saadi had been living there since February 2013, when he was released from an Israel jail after serving two years.




In this photo taken on April 17, 2022, Islamic Jihad fighters enter an underground tunnel in the Gaza strip. (Mahmud Hams / AFP) 

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 as two of the attackers came from the town.

“It seems 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 case to deliver a big 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 away the initiative from it, and that really turns the tables on your enemy.”

Israel’s rationale, though, failed to convince not only Palestinian civilians in the line of fire but also critics of the military doctrine of pre-emptive force, including the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a tweet on Saturday, Francesca Albanese said: “I condemn Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza to allegedly ‘deter’ Islamic Jihad’s possible retaliation for its leader’s arrest. As Intl’ Law only permits the use of force in self-defense, Operation Breaking Dawn is a flagrant act of aggression. Illegal. Immoral. Irresponsible.”

In addition to the diplomatic backlash, Israel’s government, led by Yair Lapid, a politician with no military record or experience in senior security posts, would sooner or later have had to contend 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 percent. Israel has closed its crossing with the territory and, on Saturday, reports said the only power station there shut down after Israel called off an expected fuel delivery.

Yahya Al-Sarraj, the mayor of Gaza City, said on Sunday that municipal services were being affected by the lack of power. “This will minimize the supply of domestic water (at a time of peak consumption during July and August),” he said. “Raw sewage will be spilled to the sea because the plants are not functioning in full capacity.”

Unsurprisingly, the potential of a propaganda coup was not lost on the PIJ’s patrons in Tehran. President Ebrahim Raisi was quoted by Iran’s Fars News agency as saying that “the resistance of the people of Gaza will speed up the decline of this child-killing (Zionist) regime.”




Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets with Ziyad Nakhaleh, secretary-general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, in Tehran on August 4, 2022. (WANA via REUTERS)

Separately, in remarks reported by Iranian state television on Saturday, Gen. Hossein Salami, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said: “The Israelis will pay yet another heavy price for their recent crime.”

Earlier, Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Salami as saying: “In Lebanon, tens of thousands, even more than one hundred thousand missiles, are ready to be fired to create a hell for the Zionists at the moment of making the divine predestination happen.”

Javedanfar considers the PIJ-Iranian nexus a probable second reason for Israel’s decision to crack down on the group. “Given that the Israeli attacks happened when the head of the PIJ was in Tehran, the Iranian context of the current operation cannot be overlooked,” he told Arab News.




Palestinians rally in Lebanon's refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh on Aug. 7, 2022, in support of the Islamic Jihad group march in its fight with Israel. (Anwar Amro / AFP) 

“The PIJ is an Iranian proxy, much more 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 for undermining Israeli security in both Gaza and Syria.”

Lapid, the Israeli prime minister, had averred that “Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either.” Indeed, a broader conflict was sure to expose Israel to not just higher civilian casualties but also greater political heat, including potentially from the Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords.

In the best-case scenario for Israel, the PIJ’s military wing would have been decapitated, the civilian death toll in Gaza would have stayed low, and the diplomatic storm would have passed quickly. But given the dark shadow that the Palestinian conflict continues to cast over the Arab-Israeli alignments reshaping Middle East geopolitics, Israel could still have ended up winning the battle yet losing the war.

 

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US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

Updated 35 sec ago

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

BEIRUT: A US airborne operation involving multiple helicopters in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province has killed one person, Syrian state TV reported Thursday.
“US occupation forces carried out a landing operation using several helicopters in... the southern countryside of Qamishli and killed one person,” Syrian TV said, without elaborating.
When contacted by AFP, the US armed forces’ Central Command said it currently has “no information to provide.”

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

Updated 06 October 2022

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

  • The draft deal has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments

JERUSALEM: Israel’s top cabinet ministers will convene on Thursday to discuss a prospective US-mediated border demarcation deal with Lebanon addressing a disputed Mediterranean gas field, but will not take a final vote on it, a senior Israeli official said.
The draft deal, which has not been made public, has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. But there has also been domestic opposition voiced in both countries, which are technically at war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Israel’s security cabinet, a generally secret forum for approving key strategic affairs, would meet at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to discuss the draft.
“The main points of the deal, and the matters we support, will be presented to it,” Roll told Ynet TV about the forum.
But making clear that Israel did not deem the deal final, he added: “There are still caveats ... The deal will be brought to the security cabinet, then it will be brought to the (full) cabinet, then it will be submitted to parliament.”


In an empty kitchen, Yemeni family struggles with hunger

Updated 06 October 2022

In an empty kitchen, Yemeni family struggles with hunger

  • Eight years of conflict have devastated the economy and left millions of people across Yemen struggling to feed themselves

SANAA: In a bare kitchen in her house in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, Umm Zakaria Al-Sharaabi prepares for a daily challenge — creating a meal out of virtually nothing to feed the 18 people in her extended family.
“Today we have yet to make lunch,” she says, gesturing at an empty stove. In the corner, a bag of bread and a few containers of spices are the only scraps of food to hand. “Every day is like this... We have nothing in the kitchen, we have nothing.”
Eight years of conflict have devastated the economy and left millions of people across Yemen struggling to feed themselves.
A truce agreed in April offered some respite but the United Nations says the number of families who lack adequate food has continued to grow since then. The truce expired on Monday without agreement on another extension.
Umm Zakaria’s mother-in-law Umm Hani, who shares their home in central Sanaa, says before the war they lived modestly but well on her husband’s salary from his job at the education ministry and money she earned as a maid.
“Our situation was okay. I used to work for a family continuously and my son... worked and his brother too.”
“Nowadays, I swear, we can’t afford flour,” Umm Hani says. “Look at the kitchen and everywhere. Even flour, simply flour, we don’t have it. And we don’t have rice...”
“We have a little bread I’ve just brought from the bakery. We’ll eat it with tomato sauce or anything available.”
The Sharaabi household’s struggles are shared across Yemen, both in the main populated areas like Sanaa controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, and the rest of the country held by forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition. Both sides have come under international pressure to reach a peace deal.
The United Nations says 19 million people — or 60 percent of the population — are experiencing what it calls acute food insecurity, where shortages put people’s lives or livelihoods in immediate danger.
Aid from donor states meets only half of the country’s need, according to World Food Programme (WFP) which is running the largest operation in Yemen it has ever undertaken anywhere, supplying flour, pulses, oil, sugar and vouchers for food.
Families like the Sharaabis have battled on. Those who could, sold assets or family heirlooms, even parcels of land. Others have been supported by neighbors or relatives overseas.
“The Yemen people’s coping capacity in this time of conflict is enormous,” WFP’s Yemen representative Richard Ragan said. “(They are) doing all the coping things that someone does in a time of crisis. But it’s not easy. I think many people in the country are at a breaking point.”
Although the truce reduced the violence, Ragan said WFP was still building stockpiles and tackling the impact of fuel shortages. “When you are feeding almost 20 million people on a regular basis, it’s very hard to turn that on and off,” he said.
In the second half of the year, the number of people whose food insecurity was deemed an emergency has risen by a quarter to 7.14 million while those “in catastrophe” rose five-fold to 161,000, according to UN estimates.
“The biggest challenge ... is that the inadequacy of the aid compared to the number of those in need continues to increase daily,” said Nabil Al-Qadasi of the Houthi-run School Feeding and Humanitarian Relief Project, which delivers food to 3 million people in 12 of Yemen’s 21 provinces.
In Sanaa’s northern district of Geraf, Amal Hasan and her husband and three children live in a small single room where they moved after their previous rent became too high.
Hasan travels to work as a maid in another part of the capital, spending most of her income on transport and saving just 1,000 to 2,000 riyals ($1.7 to $3.4) each time.
She is looking for a home with affordable rent, but says her day is dominated instead by worry about feeding her family.
“When they finish breakfast I start thinking of where to get them lunch. After that, I worry about dinner. I had never had the chance to think about how to build their future or educate them because we could barely manage to think of their food.”


Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu leaves hospital after overnight stay

Updated 06 October 2022

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu leaves hospital after overnight stay

  • Former prime minister earlier admitted to a hospital after complaining of chest pains

JERUSALEM: Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was released from a Jerusalem hospital on Thursday, his party said, a day after he was admitted complaining of chest pains.
Netanyahu, 72, was taken to the city’s Shaarei Tzedek hospital a day earlier after feeling unwell at synagogue services for the Jewish fasting day of Yom Kippur.
He underwent medical exams and stayed overnight for observation. The hospital said his tests results were normal.
The former prime minister is now returning to work and already went on his morning walk, his Likud party said, adding that he thanked the hospital’s cardiology department and intensive care unit for their help.
His hospitalization comes less than a month before Israel holds its fifth national election in under four years.
The Nov. 1 election, like the previous four, is focused largely on whether voters believe Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, is fit to lead the nation.


Jason Greenblatt’s ‘In the Path of Abraham’ offers an inside track on the Middle East peace process

Updated 06 October 2022

Jason Greenblatt’s ‘In the Path of Abraham’ offers an inside track on the Middle East peace process

  • Abraham Accords have normalized ties between Israel and an Arab quartet: UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco
  • Greenblatt: Normalization leads to a reasonable, peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict

MISSOURI, USA: With the two-year anniversary of the historic Abraham Accords upon us, it seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the changes they heralded for the Middle East and North Africa.

The agreement has normalized relations so far between Israel and four Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Jason Greenblatt’s “In the Path of Abraham” offers readers an inside account of the thinking and process which made the accords possible. Appointed by President Donald Trump in 2016 as representative for international negotiations, Greenblatt, together with Jared Kushner, Ambassador David Friedman and Kushner aide Avi Berkowitz led the US efforts to broker peace between Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors.

The book offers a very accessible, clear and forthright account of how they approached this monumental task. In the process, Greenblatt and his colleagues had to throw out much of the received wisdom on the Arab-Israeli conflict accumulated over the years and propagated by a vast army of “experts” on the issue.

The long-held consensus view on this conflict maintained that one could not pursue peace and normalization between Israel and various Arab states until after a final peace deal with the Palestinians had been achieved.

That peace deal with the Palestinians proved ever elusive, however, even to this day, effectively giving the Palestinian political parties a veto over anything to do with Israel in the region.

The MENA region has changed over time, however, even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears frozen in place.

The old experts, from academics and think tanks to intelligence officers and people manning desks in the State Department or various foreign ministries, largely failed to appreciate the changes. 

Pan-Arabism does not exert the same hold over the Arab world that it once did, and while most Arab leaders and their public remain very sympathetic to the Palestinians, they also have their own state interests to look to. 

Iran, in particular, looms very large within the risk assessments of various Arab states, and in Israel they can find a militarily and technologically powerful — and determined foe — of Iran with which to make common cause. 

An integral part of the MENA region, whether some like it or not, Israel is also not going anywhere. Indeed, in the present circumstances, Israel will neither lose sight of the threat that Tehran poses, nor fail to grasp the geopolitical significance of a nuclear-armed Iran. 

Common interests between many Arab states and Israel go beyond Iran as well, as Greenblatt so astutely understood, and the Palestinian leadership’s intransigence in the face of various Israeli peace offers over the years could no longer be permitted to veto such a confluence of interests.

FASTFACT

2020

The Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, normalized relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

He writes: “By continuing to make perfect the enemy of the good, the Palestinian Authority had, slowly but surely, eroded much of what was once rock-solid political and financial support by its neighbors.

“For more and more Arab countries, it was one thing to support the desire of Palestinians for a peaceful state, but it had become increasingly untenable to continue to make that cause a higher priority than the competing needs of their citizens who both desired and deserved a more prosperous future as well.” 

That common interest resides not just in geopolitical alignments and threats, but in the social and economic realms as well — including energy, food, water, health, and other issues.

Greenblatt provides the example of a recent Rand Corporation study that “forecasts nearly $70 billion in direct new aggregate benefits for Israel and its four partners (the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan) in these free trade agreements over the next decade and the creation of almost 65,000 new jobs.

If all five partners, in turn, trade with one another in a plurilateral FTA, Rand calculates the additional aggregate benefits will exceed $148 billion and the jobs created to exceed 180,000.” 

The Arab leaders in the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan proved far-sighted enough and courageous enough to see all this as well and take the necessary steps. 

Advocates of the Abraham Accords model argue, rightly or wrongly, that reversing the equation of “peace with the Palestinians first, normalization with the Arab world after” increases the likelihood of arriving at an Israeli-Palestinian peace as well. As evidence, they say some 70 years of Arab League boycotts and shunning of Israel certainly did nothing to achieve peace.

For better or worse, the united Arab front against Israel convinced Israelis of the need to remain militarily strong and vigilant, decreasing their ability to imagine any scenario in which the Arab world would truly accept them and make genuine peace.

Yet since everyone pretty much agrees that an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated peace remains the most difficult and elusive objective, why not marshal the assistance of all those who share that goal? 

Most of the Arab states in the MENA region most definitely want a reasonable peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now the ones that have normalized relations with Israel can help bring it about. 

Jason Greenblatt (L) meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 25, 2017. (AFP file)

They can help broker talks, they can help persuade both Israelis and Palestinians to find a middle ground somewhere, and, most of all, they can become stronger forces for moderate politics in the region.

Greenblatt and his team understood all this. They did not just sense that the Arab region was ready for a change in policy, however.

They tirelessly worked to help bring about the change for the better, and in the process probably improved the lives of millions in the region. 

For that we all owe them our thanks. 

Unfortunately, the people who could most benefit from reading this account behind the Abraham Accords will probably never do so. People do not, as a rule, like to read about how they were wrong. There are also more minor things in the book to take issue with, which might dissuade some readers.

Many Americans (including this reviewer) will not at all share the author’s extremely high regard for former President Trump, for instance. To such readers, the same president who threw Washington’s Kurdish allies under the bus in 2017 and 2019 — the very allies who defeated Daesh with a US-backed coalition — cannot be trusted to understand the region nor to always make the right call.

Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against settlement expansion in al-Mughayer in the occupied West Bank on July 29, 2022. (AFP file)

I would also expect Israeli policymakers to receive at least some criticism at some point somewhere in the book. The issue of illegal settlements might be a case in point — I still cannot understand how Israel can claim more land in the occupied West Bank (Judea and Samaria) without accepting (meaning offering citizenship to) the people there.

The simple unavoidable calculus supporting a two-state solution still seems to be that you cannot have one without the other — if you take all the land, you need to take all the people there too and offer them equal citizenship. If offering them equal citizenship is too dangerous for Israel, then settlements need to stop in order for the Palestinians to retain enough land for a viable and dignified state of their own — whenever they might be ready for that. 

Finally, the issue of the Iran nuclear accords remains a thorny one. The uncomfortable truth is that Iran has made more progress toward building nuclear weapons since Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear accord than in the years following its signing. There may be no good answers here as long as the US lacks the appetite for military conflict with Iran, a lack of appetite that the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations all shared.

(L-R) Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan during the signing the the Abraham Accords. (AFP)

In Greenblatt’s telling of the issue, things are a good deal simpler: The nuclear deal with Iran was a con job that Obama and Kerry fell for, and Trump put a stop to that. The counterargument is, apart from the targeted assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, the Trump administration achieved little in the matter of defanging Iran.

The regime remains solidly in place, uranium enrichment has expanded rather than quieted down, and Iranian influence in places such as Iraq and Syria is stronger than ever (especially after Trump chose to let Iranian and Iraqi forces attack Washington’s Kurdish allies in October 2017).

These quibbles notwithstanding, Greenblatt’s book remains well worth picking up. The narrative regarding peace and progress in the MENA region, including an almost contagious optimism for such, could use more space on any bookshelf.

-----------------------

“In the Path of Abraham,” Jason D. Greenblatt (New York: Wicked Son Publishing, hard cover, 325 pages). 

Reviewer: David Romano, Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics, Missouri State University

 

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