The latest round of violence in and around the Gaza Strip has proven more difficult to extinguish than in previous rounds despite intensive mediation efforts by Egypt and calls for a ceasefire.
In a statement late Thursday evening, High Representative Josep Borrell expressed EU’s deep concern by the grave escalation in the area and urged an “immediate comprehensive ceasefire which will end Israeli military operations in Gaza and current rocket firing against Israel, which is unacceptable.” International humanitarian law must be respected, he added.
The statement echoed a previous statement issued on the same day by the so-called ‘Munich group’ which was meeting in Berlin. The group was formed in February 2020 to discuss the peace process and consists of the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany.
EU was represented at the meeting in Berlin by Dutch diplomat Sven Koopmans, the EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the Middle East Peace Process, and Carl Hallergard, the managing director of the Middle East division in the European External Action Service.
Asked by The Brussels Times what the EU can do to bring about a ceasefire, Peter Stano, EU lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, replied that EU always stands ready to facilitate a ceasefire but that the parties in the conflict must decide on the parameters of the ceasefire.
He did not specify the parties on the Palestinian side which is divided between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas/the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The Islamic Jihad is behind the current rocket attacks against Israel but both of them are classified as terrorist organisations by Israel, EU and the international community.
The EU spokesperson was more outspoken than the ‘Munich group’ and stressed that the indiscriminate rocket fire from the Gaza Strip against Israel is unacceptable. “It’s very important to stress that Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks. On the other hand, Israel has also obligations to take precautions to prevent civilian casualties and uphold international humanitarian law.”
Escalation of violence
The violence in the region escalated quickly after Israel on early Tuesday morning launched air strikes against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which a week earlier had fired rockets against Israel in response to the death of a hunger-striking Palestinian prisoner belonging to the organisation. In fact, it is the third round of violence in two months since Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government came to power.
The Israeli strike targeted three Islamic Jihad commanders but cost also the lives of innocent women and children raising questions if Israel had done enough to avoid civilian casualties. After the initial shock, Islamic Jihad responded with indiscriminate barrages of rockets against Israeli villages and towns in southern Israel, reaching the coastal plain up to the Tel Aviv area.
This in turn resulted in more Israeli strikes against Islamic Jihad leaders and its rocket launchers and weapons workshops. The total number of Palestinian deaths increased to over 30, including civilians, and ca 100 injured by Thursday evening. Islamic Jihad has fired more than 600 rockets, a quarter of which fell inside the Gaza Strip causing Palestinian casualties.
The rockets that reached Israel fell either in empty areas or were intercepted by the Israeli anti-air defense system. One rocket was not intercepted on Thursday evening and hit a house in a city close to Tel Aviv, killing one person and injuring several others. After a lull in the rocket fire during the night to Friday, rockets were fired against the Jerusalem area, without causing much damage.
A ceasefire would not only bring an end to the casualties. It would also restore the calm, temporary as it might be, on both sides of the border and enable Israelis and Palestinians to return to their normal lives. It could also pave the way for a political horizon leading to the comprehensive peace solution both sides yearn for.
There have been about 15 rounds of violence, military operations and wars since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005 from the Gaza Strip without any peace agreement. The vicious circle of violence was never broken but every time a ceasefire restored the calm and lasted for some time. This time restoring calm seems more difficult than ever.
Israel says that it will continue the targeted killings of Islamic Jihad leaders if the rocket fire from Gaza Strip does not stop. The Islamic Jihad says that it will continue the rocket attacks if Israel’s targeted killings do not stop.
Chances of sustainable ceasefire
“The momentum for an end to the fighting has passed,” Professor Uzi Rabi, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Brussels Times. “Now we have a different and more difficult story. Islamic Jihad wants to have the last word and save face after Israel killed so many of its highest commanders.”
He expects Egypt to resume its mediation efforts but it can take them time to achieve a ceasefire, quoting the saying of Clausewitz that ‘war is the land of uncertainty’. He would not hesitate to stop the fighting now. The more the Israeli strikes continue, the bigger the risk for mistakes and that the fighting will escalate and spread to other fronts.
On the other hand, he cannot ignore the psychological impact on Israeli society if it would give a free hand to terrorists to strike at will at its citizens and paralyze the society. As regards the body of the Palestinian prisoner who died after a hunger strike, Israel will have to oblige to return the body to Islamic Jihad later. Two Israeli citizens and the remains of two Israeli soldiers are kept by Hamas.
This explains also why it is more difficult to agree on a ceasefire this time although Hamas with its much bigger arsenal of rockets decided to stay out of the fighting. Islamic Jihad was left alone after it thought that Hamas would support it. Instead, Hamas is sitting on the fences, at least until now.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are proxies of Iran but not in the same way and degree. He describes the much smaller Islamic Jihad as the most extreme group of them. Founded in 1981 and influenced by the Iranian revolution, it is the ultimate proxy of Iran. Hamas has a different agenda because it is running Gaza and is responsible for the welfare of its inhabitants.
Furthermore, Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority in all Palestine. Professor Rabi warns that Hamas might capitalize on the current fighting in case things get out of hand during the Israeli Flag March next week in Jerusalem. The provocative march was one of the major incidents that triggered the 11-days long war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 and the round of violence in August 2022.
The war in 2021 ended with an unconditional ceasefire, leaving the root causes to the conflict unsolved. Even if the current round will soon end with a ceasefire, it will not be the end of the conflict. “We cannot say how successful Israel’s military operation is because it depends how long time the calm after a ceasefire will last until next round.”
“Israel would really like to agree on a long-term cease-fire or truce, what is called ‘hudna in the holy Quran, which would ensure peace for 25 years,” he says. “The Prophet Muhammad did it once. The Islamic Jihad cannot not do it but perhaps Hamas.”
But that would require rethinking outside the box by both Hamas and Israel. Until now, Israel’s decisions have been dictated by short-term considerations. “A sustainable ceasefire would be a blessing but I don’t think that Israel has a long-term strategy for it. Besides, I doubt that such a ceasefire is achievable because of the other actor in the equation – Iran. And Islamic Jihad is a 100 % protégé of Iran.”
The Brussels Times