Palestinians help extinguish the fire after an Israeli air strike on the car of Hamas’s top commander, Ahmed Al-Jaabari, in Gaza City, November 14, 2012. Reuters/Stringer
Yesterday’s Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Gaza and Israel collapsed today when Israel launched a major escalation. In airstrikes almost certainly involving US-made F-16 warplanes and/or US-made Apache helicopters, Israel’s air force assassinated Ahmad Jaabari, the longtime military leader of Hamas. As the Israeli airstrikes continued today, seven more Palestinians were killed and at least thirty were injured, ten of them critically.
Jaabari had been chief negotiator with Israel in the deal that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners held illegally in Israeli jails. He had negotiated the cease-fire that had mostly held over much of the last year or more. The attack, code-named “Operation Pillar of Defense” [sic], also killed someone else in Jaabari’s car, and quickly expanded with additional airstrikes against Palestinian security and police stations in Gaza, making it impossible for Palestinian police to try to control the rocket-fire.
So why the escalation? Israeli military and political leaders have long made clear that regular military attacks to “cleanse” Palestinian territories (the term was used by Israeli soldiers to describe their role in the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza) is part of their long-term strategic plan. Earlier this year, on the third anniversary of the Gaza assault, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Army Radio that Israel will need to attack Gaza again soon, to restore what he called its power of “deterrence.” He said the assault must be “swift and painful,” concluding, “we will act when the conditions are right.” Perhaps this was his chosen moment.
It is an interesting historical parallel that this escalation—which almost certainly portends a longer-term and even more lethal Israeli assault—takes place almost exactly four years after Operation Cast Lead, the last major Israeli war on Gaza, which left 1,400 Gazans dead in 2008–09. Then, as now, the attack came shortly after the US presidential elections, ending just before President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.
But the timing for this escalation is almost certainly shaped more by Israel’s domestic politics than by the US election cycle. The most likely timeline is grounded in Netanyahu’s political calendar—he faces re-election in January, and having thoroughly antagonized many Israelis by his deliberate dissing of President Obama, needs to shore up the far-right contingent of his base. With regional pressures escalating, particularly regarding the expanding Syrian crisis, Netanyahu needs to reassure his far-right supporters (an increasing cohort) that even if he doesn’t send bombers to attack Damascus, he still can attack, bomb, assassinate Arabs with impunity.