On Monday night, there was a fine line between the situation in the Gaza Strip and an all-out new war. The Israeli raid in the Khan Yunis area on Sunday, which led to the killing of a Hamas military commander and six other members of the Islamic movement, has had immediate and inevitable consequences. Gaza and the nearby Israeli towns and villages were plunged into a climate of conflict. Launches of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes continued for hours, before giving way to a tension-filled pause.
Previously, on Sunday, in the face of protest from the most extremist members of his right-wing government, Benyamin Netanyahu had to explain and defend his decision to allow money and fuel from Qatar to enter Gaza, where two million Palestinians are living in precarious conditions, to say the least. Netanyahu stressed the need to prevent new armed conflicts. Nevertheless, just a few hours later, the Israeli military command launched an undercover raid deep into Palestinian territory.
Israeli commandos entered Gaza territory at Khan Yunis, in a car and wearing civilian clothes. The military wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said that the Israeli undercover operatives shot and killed Nour el-Deen Baraka, a mid-level commander who seems to have been in charge of the construction of underground tunnels in the area.
After that, things didn’t go according to plan for the Israelis. Hamas’s security is now much more efficient and locally widespread than it was a few years ago, when Israeli special units could do whatever they wanted and always managed to cover their tracks. Members of the al-Qassam Brigades found the car and chased them, resulting in an exchange of machine gun fire that lasted for at least two hours. The Israeli military command activated a comprehensive plan to extract the mistaravim (the name for Israeli troops disguising themselves as Palestinians) from Gaza after they were pinned down by fighters from the Islamic movement.
Three Palestinians and an Israeli officer were killed in the crossfire. Three more Palestinians were killed in the Israeli air strikes which provided cover for the exfiltration operation.
Monday, the Israeli top brass congratulated each other for what they did, pointing out that they had prevented the capture of the members of the special unit. However, the Palestinians had the upper hand in the fight for many minutes, and only a massive intervention involving planes, drones and helicopters made it possible for the Israeli soldiers to escape.
IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot described the raid as an “a very meaningful operation to Israeli security.” The IDF’s spokesperson said the operation “was not intended to kill or abduct terrorists, but to strengthen Israeli security” and that the special force was engaged in an intelligence gathering mission, “like many others similar to it” that are not usually disclosed. Hamas, however, has no doubts that the purpose of the mission was to kill Baraka and other Palestinians or take them prisoners, while Hamas soldiers were able to put a stop to it.
There was great anger and strong emotions Monday morning among the many thousands of Palestinians who took part in the funerals of the seven killed. By the afternoon, the retaliation everyone expected finally began. In the space of less than two hours, some 200 rockets and mortar rounds were launched from Gaza toward Sderot, Shar HaNeghev, Ofakim and many other villages and towns in southern Israel, with many thousands of residents rushing to take cover in bomb shelters at the sound of the air raid sirens.
Footage posted on social media showed a wave of dozens of rockets fired all at once, while Hamas put out a statement claiming responsibility for the attack in response to the killing of the seven Palestinian fighters. At least three Israelis were wounded and taken to area hospitals. A house in Sderot was engulfed in flames. An anti-tank rocket hit an Israeli bus, seriously injuring one passenger. Israeli bombers took off immediately to strike at Gaza everywhere, from north to south. Powerful explosions rang out during the night in the Strip, with the population barricaded in their homes, fearing the start of a new war.
Some explosions damaged parts of the power grid, causing whole areas of Gaza to lose power. (Of course, in Gaza, even without bombs falling, power is available for no more than a few hours per day.) Three Palestinians were killed, two of them members of the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, and several injured. It was a night full of fear, while Israeli tanks and armored vehicles were surrounding Gaza on all sides. According to rumors, an Egyptian attempt at mediation began during the late evening, with uncertain prospects, in an attempt to avoid a war.
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