The logic behind Israel’s Gaza attack, if any, is anyone’s guess

Meron Rapoport

Middle East Eye  /  August 7, 2022

Election campaigning? Undermining Hamas and Iran? Or neither? The unprovoked bombing campaign makes little to no sense.

Even among the many strange aspects of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, the events of the past week are remarkably odd.

Last Monday, 1 August, in the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli soldiers arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a prominent figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the occupied West Bank.

Despite his importance, the detention can hardly be termed exceptional. Al-Saadi has already been arrested seven times by Israel, most recently a year ago. Routine, then, would be a fitting description of this latest detention. 

Al-Saadi’s arrest did not receive noticeable attention on the Palestinian street, perhaps because he was not severely injured during the process, indicating that he was evidently not armed, or perhaps because he wasn’t especially well known outside Jenin and in the ranks of the PIJ itself.

There were no special West Bank protests recorded, and the PIJ itself made do with a warning to Israel not to damage Al-Saadi’s health.

“We are prepared to respond to this aggression with force if it does not stop,” said the group’s announcement.

But despite no actual threat from PIJ, at least in public, to launch rockets from Gaza toward Israel if Al-Saadi was not released, Israel in a surprise move decided to restrict traffic around Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza-Israel boundary, an area known in Israel as the “Gaza envelope”.

It is not unusual for Israel to impose restrictions on mobility there as a means to prevent injury to Israeli civilians. However, in the past this step was always taken after Palestinian groups in Gaza launched rockets or after Israel itself attacked targets there.

This time, no such unusual incidents preceded the announcement of restricted traffic.

Then, for three days, between Tuesday and Friday, neither the PIJ nor any other Palestinian group fired missiles from Gaza toward Israel. That is, the expected “revenge” for Al-Saadi’s detention in Jenin, in anticipation of which civilian traffic in Israel had been restricted, did not arrive.

Nevertheless, although things in Gaza were quiet, on Friday afternoon Israel launched an attack by air on various points in the besieged Palestinian Strip. The main focus was a residential building in Gaza City. Several missiles landed with precision on three apartments in that building.

The barrage killed Taiseer al-Jabari, the commander of the northern division of al-Quds Brigades (Saraya al-Quds), the military wing of the PIJ. It also killed Alaa Qaddoum, a five-year-old girl, together with a 23-year-old woman and seven other Palestinian men.

Jabari, like AlSaadi, was unknown to the Israeli public and possibly to the Palestinian public, too. 

Even Ran Kochav, the spokesperson of the Israeli army, forgot Jabari’s name when he was repeating the announcement of his assassination on live television on Saturday morning. 

The Israeli military announced that Jabari “was believed to have recently been promoting plans for anti-tank attacks against Israeli civilians and IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers”. 

In other words, even the army’s own announcement did not clarify whether the Israeli action was meant to prevent specific acts of violence planned by Jabari against Israel, or whether the “accusation” against Jabari was more general.

The Israeli army did not bother to explain how the “precision” Israeli attack killed five-year-old Alaa Qaddoum. There was no apology, nor any admission that a mistake had been made. It was evident enough that Alaa living near Jabari made her a legitimate target. 

A few hours after the Israeli bombardment, PIJ began firing mortars and rockets toward the Israeli communities near Gaza and toward Rishon LeZion and Bat Yam, two cities on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv. Israel continued to bomb Gaza.

By Sunday afternoon, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported 31 people had been killed since the start of these events, including six children. More than 265 have been wounded, with more than half of them elders, women and children. 

Although it of course condemned the Israeli attack, Hamas, the de facto rulers in Gaza, as of Sunday afternoon had not joined in the fighting, at least not officially, which may explain the word in Israel that the “campaign” would last a week, like an end-of-season sale in a dress shop.

But there is no guarantee that the violence will not grow or that the violent events of May 2021 will not be reprised.

Last year, Israel killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, during an 11-day military campaign in Gaza. In Israel, 13 people were killed, including two children, by Palestinian rockets. 

About more than the elections 

So, what prompted Israel’s military operation, absent any violent action from the Palestinian side in the West Bank or in Gaza?

Israel lacked even its usual excuse that it was “responding” to attacks on its civilians and soldiers.

Why did Israel willingly choose to put its own citizens under lockdown in the Gaza-area communities, even though PIJ had threatened no bombardment nor launched one? Why did Israel choose to target Gaza, despite knowing that its bombardment would provoke rocket fire at Israeli territory and involve a lockdown in southern Israel along with, potentially, loss of life?

Many Palestinians and left-wing Israelis are saying that brand-new Prime Minister Yair Lapid, less than two months in office as caretaker premier, intentionally put Israel on alert for a military confrontation to buttress his political standing ahead of Israel’s upcoming general elections, scheduled for 1 November.

This claim has a certain logic to it. Lapid, a civilian leader, never served as a combat soldier and spent his military service as a journalist with the army’s newspaper. 

Hence, by cultivating a strong aura of security, despite his lack of military experience,  he can enhance his standing with the public in a military-loving, right-wing country like Israel.

The fact that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid’s main competitor in the elections, is basing the entire electoral campaign of his party, Likud, on the fact that Lapid sits in a government together with the “Islamist” list headed by Mansour Abbas, reinforces this explanation for Lapid’s decision.

Abbas is the head of a coalition of Palestinian parties in the Israeli parliament, the United Arab List, whose support would be vital for Lapid to form a majority in any future government. 

Given that the right-wing denigrates Lapid as someone who “has sold the country to the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of terror,” his demonstrating toughness against the Palestinians could help Lapid counter Netanyahu’s propaganda.

This explanation, though tempting, may not be sufficient. Lapid certainly remembers what happened to his close friend Ehud Olmert immediately after he became prime minister in 2006. Olmert, too, lacked combat experience as a soldier (he, too, served with the army newspaper).

After Hezbollah abducted Israeli soldiers in northern Israel, Olmert, determined to demonstrate strength, launched an extensive military operation in Lebanon. That campaign ended in failure and marked the beginning of the end of Olmert’s political career.

Moreover, if the operation in Gaza intensifies and leads to widespread civilian Palestinian deaths, the move could actually complicate Lapid’s domestic political situation.

Almost the only path for the bloc headed by Netanyahu to achieve a parliamentary majority would be through a low voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel, as occurred in March 2021 when it was about 45 percent.

If the turnout among Palestinian voters reaches 65 percent, as it did in the election of March 2020, the chance that Netanyahu could attain a majority would be negligible.

Judging by experience, then, military conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza tends to keep Palestinian voters in Israel at home on election day, out of anger at the government that is committing these acts, and with a corresponding decrease in the prospects for a Lapid victory.

The Iran factor, the Hamas factor

Another explanation for Israel’s unprovoked attack on Gaza this past week may come from another direction entirely.

Recently there have been renewed contacts between the United States, Iran, the European Union, China and Russia on the question of extending the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Observers are predicting that prospects for achieving this are not good, but the fact that these discussions are still in progress is worrying to Israel, which is doing its utmost to disrupt them.

US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East last month was, from Israel’s standpoint, a means to eliminate the last chances of an agreement with Iran, and instead to create a regional anti-Iranian military alliance to which Israel would be a party.

This did not happen, and the upshot of the regional conference convened by Saudi Arabia in Jeddah actually was an apparent willingness to reach an agreement with Iran rather than confront it. 

If Israel’s interest called for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear capability, it should have supported the extension of the non-proliferation treaty: Iran, after President Donald Trump’s 2018 move to unilaterally withdraw the US from that agreement, has only improved its nuclear capabilities.

Israel’s real concern is that lifting sanctions on Iran will enhance its economic and political position in the region and indirectly strengthen the forces of opposition to Israel.

A military operation in Gaza that would force the PIJ to fire on Israel, positioning Iran as a “sponsor of terror” because of its support for the PIJ, could help Israel in its attempts to torpedo an agreement in Vienna.

Another relevant consideration may involve Hamas.

Israel has long had an interest in the division between Hamas and Fatah and between Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli leaders have more than once implied being in favour of continued rule by Hamas in Gaza.

Lately, it seems increasingly evident that relations between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza are starting to resemble relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah: economic concessions in exchange for peace and quiet. Allowing more Gaza workers and merchants entry to Israel is part of that trend. Damage to the PIJ in Gaza could help Hamas “restrain” the former, with further concessions as the quid pro quo. 

Or just business as usual?

But seeking rational explanations for Israel’s strange behaviour may be superfluous, because the best explanation may come from the world of social psychology.

Israeli society no longer sees the occupation at all – because the status quo appears to Israelis as normal and natural. And, under these circumstances, Israel is bewildered every time this situation arouses resistance.

This is true whether the resistance manifests as shootings by individual, unaffiliated Palestinians targeting Israelis in Tel Aviv or Bnei Brak, as occurred a few months ago, or whether an organization like Hamas or the PIJ is behind it.

Israel behaves the way it does because it doesn’t feel accountable to anyone at all, whether in the international arena, the Israeli domestic arena, or – thanks to the Abraham Accords – the regional Middle East arena. The Palestinians, of course, don’t count at all.

At a certain point, Israel evidently resigned itself to having no goal for the future – whether the goal be the elimination of Palestinian resistance and the collapse of Hamas, as Netanyahu promised before being elected prime minister a second time, in 2009, or the signing of some political agreement with the Palestinians, or even orchestrating their mass expulsion as Israel did in 1948.

In any of these scenarios, the logic of Israel’s recent actions is difficult to parse. Given the context, even an irrational act such as provoking a completely superfluous military conflict in Gaza seems somehow logical. 

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer