On Monday my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg began a post with this sentence: "Rockets are flying from Gaza into Israel at a fast clip, and Israelis, it is said, are divided on the question of how to respond."
That same day I came across this report from Ma'an, a Palestinian news agency:
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Palestinian factions met on Monday in Gaza City to discuss Israeli attacks and threats of a wider operation in the enclave.
Hamas called the meeting to try and avoid further casualties after Israeli forces killed six Palestinians in Gaza since Saturday, said Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Talal Abu Tharefa.
Abu Tharefa told Ma'an any truce with Israel must include an end to Israeli airstrikes and attacks, adding that the Palestinian resistance would retain the right to respond to Israeli aggression.
So in Israel the question was how to respond to aggression from Gaza, and in Gaza the question was how to respond to aggression from Israel. And each side considered its own use of force--what the other side called provocation--a response to provocation.
On Thursday, after Israel had killed a senior Hamas military commander and his son, and a rocket from Gaza had killed three Israelis, I aired this question on twitter: "Does anybody know of a truly symmetrical timeline of Israel-Gaza escalation--including missiles from Gaza and Israeli strikes?"
A number of people sent links, but none of the timelines seemed wholly objective; all seemed to have at least a wisp of Israeli or Palestinian perspective. Happily, Emily Hauser, an American-Israeli writer who lived in Tel Aviv for 14 years, offered to do her best to assemble a symmetrical timeline from available sources. You'll find it below, with fatalities in boldface.
Since Emily didn't want to devote the rest of her life to this project, she had to choose a starting date, and she chose Nov. 8. But her preamble acknowledges that picking any date is in a sense arbitrary.
So examine this timeline and draw your own conclusions. I'll save my conclusion for the bottom of this post.
A summary of events in the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, Nov 8 - Nov 15
By Emily L. Hauser
Recent events in Israel and the Gaza Strip have been unusual only in scope. Violence and fear of violence is a near-daily reality for the residents of Gaza and Israel's southern communities. There's a constant back and forth, and on both sides, there's always something or someone to avenge.
For instance, some Palestinian sources date the start of this latest round of violence back to November 4, when Reuters reported the death of "an unarmed, mentally unfit man" who strayed too near the border fence, did not respond to reported Israeli warnings, and was then shot. Palestinian medics report that Israeli security personnel prevented them from attending to the man for a couple of hours, and say that he likely died as a result.
But it's genuinely impossible to date today's hostilities conclusively to one incident or another; even the "two-week lull" that some outlets have said preceded Nov. 8 (when the timeline below begins) was, according to Reuters "a period of increased tensions at the Israel-Gaza frontier, with militants often firing rockets at Israel and Israel launching aerial raids targeting Palestinian gunmen."
According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of November 13, Palestinian militants had fired 797 rockets into Israel in the course of 2012 , and according to the Israeli human rights organization Btselem, between January 2009 (the conclusion of the last all-out Gaza war) and September of this year, 25 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, and 314 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, with six more being killed by Israeli civilians.
Thursday, November 8
In an exchange of fire on the border of Gaza with militants from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), Israeli forces killed a 12 year old (or 13 year old ) Palestinian boy. "The PRC said it had confronted an Israeli force of four tanks and a bulldozer involved in a short-range incursion beyond Israel's border fence with the Gaza Strip." Later, Palestinian fighters blew up a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel border, injuring one Israeli soldier. Reuters
Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported the incident as follows: "An IDF [Israeli military] engineering force located a number of powerful explosive devices to the west of the fence. After the IDF disarmed charges found on the Gaza side of the border, and were repairing the border fence, explosives in an underground tunnel were detonated, causing a large explosion...damaging a jeep and lightly injuring a soldier."Israeli MFA
Saturday, November 10
An IDF force patrolling near the border, inside Israel, was hit by an anti-tank missile fired from inside the Gaza Strip. Two soldiers were seriously injured. MFA
In retaliation, Israeli tanks fired into Gaza, killing four Palestinians; Palestinian fighters retaliated in turn with rockets into Israel; an Israeli air strike targeted a rocket crew, & killed a militant. "Popular Resistance Committees, said it had fired rockets at communities close to the border and the towns of Sderot and Netivot in southern Israel, in what it called 'the revenge invoice' for the deaths in Gaza." The IDF reports that "over the past few hours, 25 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel." Reuters
In addition to the four Palestinians killed immediately by Israeli fire, 38 were injured, one of them dying on November 13. As a result of additional Israeli artillery fire that day, 11 Palestinians, including a 10 year old child, were also injured. An Israeli drone fired a missile at members of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad in north Gaza, killing one militant. Palestinian Center for Human Rights
Sunday, November 11
Israeli government reports four civilians injured in rocket fire from Gaza; Israeli attacks result in one Palestinian civilian killed and dozens injured. Institute for Middle East Understanding
Sixty-four rockets and several mortars were fired into Israel; two Israeli homes hit directly. "A number of Israeli civilians were wounded by the rocket fire, although not seriously; several were treated for shock and there was extensive property damage." MFA
Ynet reported that over 100 Qassam rockets, mortar shells and Grads fired from Gaza into Israel in the course of 24 hours; the Israeli air force "struck several terror hubs in the Strip." Ynet
A Palestinian civilian was injured by Israeli artillery fire, and a militant killed in drone strike. PCHR
Monday November 12
Israeli warplanes opened fire on three different Gaza targets between the hours of 2:20 and 3:20 am; no casualties reported. PCHR
In the morning, damage was done to a private home inside Israel when a rocket hit its yard. A ceramics factory was later hit, and that evening, two rockets were intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" defense system. MFA
At 9:07 PM, HaAretz reported that "The representatives of Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip announced an agreement to hold their fire on Monday, following days of persistent rocket attacks.... However a matter of minutes later, two rockets [exploded] in open fields near [the southern town of] Sderot. No casualties or damage reported." HaAretz
Tuesday November 13
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh praised Gaza's main militant groups in Gaza for agreeing to the truce: "They showed a high sense of responsibility by saying they would respect calm should the Israeli occupation also abide by it," he said." Reuters
A rocket exploded in an open area in Ashdod. MFA
Wednesday November 14
Reports emerged that Israel has targeted Ahmed Jabari, head of Hamas's military wing; Israel confirmed the assassination, citing his "decade-long terrorist activity," and said that killing was the part of an operation in which the military struck 20 different targets across Gaza. HaAretz [Note: Later reports indicate that Jabari was considering a permanent truce agreement at the time of his assassination]
Over the course of the day, Israeli strikes killed 8 Palestinians, leaving 90 injured. The dead include a 65 year old man, a pregnant 19 year old, a 7 year old girl, and an 11 month old boy. Ma'an News Agency
At 10:17 PM, HaAretz summarized the day's rocket attacks: 60 rockets fired, of which the Iron Dome defense system intercepted 17; later entries for that night show another 12 rockets, some of them intercepted. HaAretz
One rocket hit an Israeli shopping center, damaging stores and a vehicle. MFA
Thursday November 15
At 6:45 AM, HaAretz summarized the early morning in Israel: "Throughout the night some 25 rockets fired from Gaza toward Israel; since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense 104 rockets have been fired toward Israel; 28 people suffer anxiety; two lightly wounded."
At 6:50 AM HaAretz reported: "Three Hamas operatives killed in two separate Israel Air Forces airstrikes.... Israel Defense Forces strikes in the Gaza Strip throughout the night leave 15 wounded."
At 7:32 AM, HaAretz reported that "According to a military source, overnight strikes in Gaza damage a substantial portion of Hamas' long-range missile infrastructure."
HaAretz reported that three Israelis were killed in Kiryat Malachi, about 20 miles north of Gaza, after more than a dozen more rockets were fired over the course of the morning and one hit the apartment building in which the Israelis had lived. HaAretz
Three Israeli civilians killed [as reported by HaAretz above]; two others seriously injured, one boy moderately injured, and two babies lightly injured. Elsewhere, rockets also struck a residence and a school. MFA
At 7:23 PM, HaAretz reported that the Israeli military reports striking 250 sites in Gaza since the start of the current operation, during which time 274 rockets had been fired at Israel, 105 of them intercepted .
At 9:50 PM, Israel reported having hit an additional 70 targets in Gaza.
At 11:00 PM, HaAretz reported that "according to Hamas figures, 16 Palestinians have been killed and 151 wounded in Gaza since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense (on Nov. 14). Hamas says it has fired 527 rockets at Israel, while Islamic Jihad has fired 138." HaAretz
At midnight, Ma'an reported that "on Thursday, Israel killed 11 Palestinians in Gaza [presumably including the 3 Hamas operatives noted above], including two toddlers, and militants returned fire killing three Israelis [as reported above by HaAretz et. al.] in a rocket attack on southern Israel. Islamic Jihad fired a Fajr missile at Tel Aviv [Israel's cultural center, and the farthest any rocket had ever been fired] and Hamas said it downed an Israeli reconnaissance drone over eastern Gaza." Ma'an
Note: I depended on a variety of sources to prepare this timeline because none, other than Reuters, can be considered strictly "objective" in the conflict - each comes from within the societies that have been at war with each other for decades, and as Americans learned during the Gulf War, that can lead venerable NGOs or news organizations to err on the side of national loyalty, even if unintentionally (and of course, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a direct party to the conflict).
Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer. She lived in Tel Aviv for 14 years and has studied and written about the contemporary Middle East for 25; she writes for Open Zion on The Daily Beast, and also at her own blog. She can be followed on Twitter at @emilylhauser.
OK, my own takeaway from this timetable (drum roll) is that it's very hard to say which side started the conflict.