Analysis: What does Gaza escalation mean for appetite for calm?
But only a four hours later, that prospect seemed far more distant.
On Sunday evening, the Israeli army launched a secret operation in the coastal enclave that killed seven Palestinians, including a senior commander of the armed wing of Hamas, the group administering the Strip, as well as one of its soldiers.
On Monday, Palestinian factions responded to the Israeli attack by firing hundreds of missiles into southern Israel. An anti-tank missile struck an Israeli army bus, seriously wounding one soldier.
The barrage of projectiles was of unprecedented intensity, albeit intentionally limited in geographic scope.
The Israeli military, meanwhile, met the retaliatory rocket-and-mortar fire with dozens of air raids across the blockaded territory. By Tuesday afternoon, at least seven other Palestinians had been killed and a number of buildings – including the offices of Al-Aqsa television channel – had been destroyed.
In the immediate aftermath of Israel’s Sunday raid, speculation abounded as to why Israel would have carried out such a provocation given the advanced stage of truce talks amid mediation efforts by Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar.
Indeed, just hours earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was justifying a ceasefire deal to the Israeli public.
An Israeli military spokesperson officially denied that the objective of the raid had been to either kill or capture a Palestinian target, but refused to elaborate on precisely what the aim had been.
“Given approaching elections in Israel, a degree of political muscle flexing within the Israeli cabinet cannot be discounted as a factor behind the failed operation,” Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of a recent report on Gaza stabilisation efforts, told Al Jazeera.
“However, it does seem to be the case that the operation was there for intelligence gathering purposes and not to trigger a new war,” he added.
This was a view backed by Israeli analysts such as Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, who suggested the raid may have been related to “Hamas’ military infrastructure (tunnels, weapons development)”, or “another burning issue for Israel: the captives and missing persons in Gaza”.
Whatever the original goal had been, Israel’s deadly attack reflected a significant Israeli intelligence and operational failure. Moreover, Palestinian journalist Jehan Alfarra said the raid was “seen as a provocation attempt against Palestinian resistance factions”.
“More than 200 Palestinians have been killed over the past year in mass protests which called for lifting of the blockade on Gaza, among other things,” Alfarra told Al Jazeera, referring to the Great March of Return weekly demonstrations that have been taking place since March 30 along with the fence with Israel.
“And just as things seemed to be improving for some of Gaza’s besieged population, this raid destabilised the situation again”.
Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, said that while “Israel wasn’t interested in obstructing the truce talks nor in conducting a war or a large military campaign,” officials believed Israel’s “military capacities would provide it with a certain victory without too much trouble nor too many losses.”
Zoabi added: “Israel always tries to gain from the best of both worlds at the same time: to be violent in the background and also enjoy talks about a truce.”
The signs late on Tuesday were that a fresh ceasefire meant the end to this latest round of violence. But what do the events of the last two days say about what’s coming next?
“There is an appetite for a calm and quiet period,” said Zoabi, “but the silence exists only on the surface. In reality, there are continuous, secret [Israeli] army campaigns and operations in order to continue the control over the area – and the Palestinians continue to suffer in silence.”
The legislator’s views were echoed by Noa Landau, an Israeli political affairs journalist who wrote this week: “Netanyahu doesn’t believe there is a long-term diplomatic solution in Gaza. Moreover, he opposes the very idea of such a thing.”
Palestinians, meanwhile, are concerned that Israel’s pending elections – which must take place by November 2019 but will likely be called sooner – may mean escalation.
“Palestinians are very familiar with Israeli politicians using election time to flex their political muscles and score points at the expense of Gaza’s besieged population,” Alfarra said.
Lovatt, of ECFR, said that in recent weeks both Palestinian factions and the Israeli government had “realised there was more to gain from a ceasefire arrangement than through war”.
“For Hamas, this would have allowed for improving socioeconomic conditions and easing the pressure it has been under. For Israel, this is seen as the best means of achieving ‘calm’ on its border, particularly given the lack of an appetising alternative to a Hamas-controlled Gaza.”
Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $15m to the financially-crippled Gaza to pay the salaries of government workers, as the intensity of protests along the fence was reduced.
According to International Crisis Group senior analyst Ofer Zalzberg, “the dissonance between deal-making on Qatari financing [of Gaza civil servants’ salaries] and the seemingly botched operation demonstrates the vulnerabilities of understandings between enemies”.
“It is hard to fight with one hand and cooperate with another”, he told Al Jazeera. “Even if Israel and Hamas manage to avoid war and continue based on the understandings they have reached, these will be rickety and subject to collapse.”
Meanwhile, developments in Gaza cannot be separated from the continuous background rumours regarding a Middle East “peace plan” being drawn up by the administration of US President Donald Trump.
For Lovatt, there is a distinction between “an unprecedented alignment between international and regional actors in support of short-term financial and economic measures to stabilise Gaza and avoid renewed conflict”, and “claims” from Ramallah that “UN and Egyptian efforts to stabilise Gaza are part of a broader US peace plan to create a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and undermine [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas”.
Looking ahead, Zoabi struck a pessimistic tone.
“Trump and Israel believe that the end of these military struggles will be some sort of a political deal that will ease the humanitarian suffering in Gaza, improving the economic situation in Gaza and providing security to Israel without ending the blockade or restoring the connection of Gaza to the Palestinians in the West Bank,” she said.
Such a vision, Zoabi added, “necessarily implies a return to violence, because anything less than true freedom and sovereignty, the Palestinians – like any other people – will not accept”.
Published first by Al Jazeera.