Israel's Offensive in Gaza Has 'Opened the Gates of Hell'

This is not a photo of a sunrise. It's the Gaza Strip being hit by an Israeli missile as their campaign to wipe out militants in Gaza has continued into a second day.

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This is not a photo of a sunrise. It's the Gaza Strip being hit by an Israeli missile as their campaign to wipe out militants in Gaza has continued into a second day. Reports say as many as 13 Palestinians have been killed in the round of airstrikes that began yesterday with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the head of the Hamas military wing. Rather than silencing the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israeli, Hamas responded by saying the Israelis had "opened the gates of hell" and ratcheted up their own firing, killing three Israeli civilians in return. This is the biggest outbreak of violence between Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli Defense Forces, since a similar offensive in 2008, that that eventually killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

So why the sudden escalation of hostilities? On the Gaza side, much of it has to do with the situation in Egypt. Squeezed along the border between the two countries, Israel has often relied on the Egyptian leadership to keep Hamas's violence in check, even as the Muslim Brotherhood party became their primary supporter. After the more authoritative regime of Hosni Mubarak fell and the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country in its first national elections, Egypt's ability to control militant and terrorist groups in the remote Sinai Peninsula has weakened. There have been several attacks on Egyptian forces guarding their long border with Israel, as militants have attempted to enter or strike inside the neighboring country.

That upheaval has also led to an emboldened Hamas, which over the several weeks has fired thousands of rockets in southern Israel. Most have landed harmlessly or caused minor damage, but the situation was quickly becoming untenable, as thousands of residents were essentially living in bomb shelters and children were not going to school. With new elections on the horizon—a Likud party primary in two weeks, followed by a nationwide election early next year—Israel's politicians could no longer afford inaction. Nathan Thrall, a prominent Mideast analysis tell Tablet magazine that he can see no other explanation for the sudden escalation, even as everyone Israel accepts that there really is no good solution to the rocket problem. Although many will continue to insist that this is a problem of their own making.

So what happens next? For now, the two sides will continue to trade missile fire. Hamas has fired hundreds more rockets into Israel in the last day, increasing their distance and fire power, while Israel counters with its "Iron Dome" defense system and more targeted strikes. The IDF is also dropping leaflets from the sky, warning Palestinian citizens to stay away from Hamas operatives, which is easier said than done in the crowded Gazan cities. Israeli attacks are often as much about turning the Palestinian public against their leaders by blaming the violence on them, as they are about actually killing people. Egypt is calling on the United States to intervene, believing they are the only nation that can contain Israel, but (much like the Muslim Brotherhood's relationship to Hamas) President Obama must be seen to show support for Israel's right to defend itself.

There's still the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, and a possible re-occupation of the territory. That's a scenario neither side wants, but if Israel cannot suppress the rocket attacks with air power alone, they may feel pressure to go further. Should Israel manage to kill more of Hamas leadership and disrupt their operations (which is their stated goal at the moment) that might lead to a temporary truce. However, it could also be another instance of winning the battle, but losing the war, as the heavy bloodshed and ruined Gaza will not win Israel many friends in the wider world.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.