On Friday, the Israeli military command launched a massive campaign of air strikes against Gaza, which most likely marked the start of the military offensive that has been talked about for weeks. Minister of Defense Lieberman appeared to announce it explicitly Friday morning, claiming that it will be much broader than Operation “Protective Edge” of four years ago, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians.
“The leaders of Hamas are leading us into a situation in which there is no choice, a situation in which we will have to embark on a broad and painful military operation, not just for appearances,” Lieberman said.
Behind the new military operation, however, lies much more than the much-touted launches of “incendiary balloons” from Gaza into Israel’s southern territory, which have caused numerous fires in the past month. As Lieberman himself admitted, “the real problem is the erosion of deterrence, a change in the equation and of course the sense of security, which is no less important than security itself.” To sum up, Israel doesn’t feel that it has full control of the situation, and it feels that the power of deterrence it thought it had imposed with the offensive four years ago is fading. It intends to restore it by striking hard at Hamas.
But the victims will be, as always, the civilians in Gaza. An important factor is also the popular demonstrations of the “Great March of Return,” which the people of Gaza keep taking part in every week close to the border lines with Israel, despite the more than 140 demonstrators killed by Israeli snipers since March 30, calling for the end of the blockade that has been holding this patch of Palestinian land hostage and choking its supply lines for the past 12 years. This continuous “friction” seems to be viewed as unbearable by the Netanyahu government and Israeli military commanders.
Israel had given the Islamist movement Hamas, which is in control in Gaza, until Friday to stop launching incendiary balloons. Hamas had rejected this ultimatum, citing the unsustainability of the conditions of Gaza, and in turn had called for Israel to reopen the crossings and to resume the fuel supplies that had been blocked in recent days on Lieberman’s orders. Nonetheless, Hamas leaders limited the launches of balloons on Wednesday and Thursday, trying to defuse the tension. There were also rumors of mediation being carried out by the Egyptians to prevent the Israeli military offensive and loosen their stranglehold on Gaza. The military, however, already had their plans ready.
The spark Lieberman was waiting for came Friday afternoon, as thousands of Palestinians were gathering again for new demonstrations along the border lines, as they do every Friday, for the Great March of Return. How it all happened is not entirely clear. According to one version, some Palestinian snipers—no one knows to which armed group they belonged—shot at an Israeli position, seriously injuring a soldier who died shortly afterwards—although there had been no official confirmation of this as of last night. Only a few minutes later, the Israeli air force hit an observation post near Shujayeh, killing three Hamas militants. A fourth Palestinian, also belonging to the Islamic movement, was killed in an air raid that took place shortly afterwards near Rafah.
On the periphery of Khan Yunis, 15 missiles fell in a time span of just 10 minutes. The attacks have intensified, and the Palestinian protesters abandoned the area along the border with Israel, with 100 wounded—either by bullets or by tear gas, and a 14-year-old who is dying after being shot in the head—while Palestinian armed groups have been firing mortars. Three rockets were launched from Gaza during the evening, two of which were intercepted. A state of alarm was declared in the Israeli population centers near Gaza, and many civilians have gone into bomb shelters.
A desperate call to stop before the point of no return was launched last night on Twitter by UN special envoy Nikolay Mladenov: “Everybody in Gaza needs to take a step back from the brink.” Palestinian President Abbas had a similar message. But Gaza was already experiencing the first night of the new war.