The atmosphere was tense when night fell Tuesday on the lines between Gaza and Israel, at the end of a day that brought the Israeli armed forces to the door of the small Palestinian territory, which has not happened since the “Operation Protective Edge” offensive ended four years ago. All-out war has never been as likely a possibility as it is right now.
“The next few hours will be decisive in order to understand if this escalation will trigger a wider conflict. None of the major players wants a war, but with unceasing attacks and reprisals, things could get out of hand,” Aziz Kahlout, a journalist from Gaza, told us Tuesday evening.
Around the same time Tuesday, the Israeli Navy stopped and seized the Freedom Boat while at sea, a Palestinian ship that left Tuesday morning from the port of Gaza City with the intent to break through the Israel-imposed naval blockade of Gaza.
This outcome was widely expected: Israel will not allow any violation of the Gaza blockade, just as in the past weeks they reacted with an iron fist to the popular manifestations during the Great March of Return, using sniper fire against Palestinian demonstrators. “Israeli forces have surrounded and intercepted our ship carrying civilians, including some wounded during the past weeks. We request international protection,” was the message from one of the organizers of the protest, Salah Abdul Atti.
The escalation began on Sunday, following the killing of three Islamic Jihad militants by an artillery round fired by an Israeli tank after the discovery of a bomb ready to explode at the boundary fence. A fourth Palestinian, Mohammed al Radie, was killed during the night between Monday and Tuesday in another Israeli raid.
Islamic Jihad announced reprisals, which began Tuesday at first dawn. They fired around thirty mortar rounds at the same time, from three different points in Gaza. Warning sirens came on several times at Sderot and throughout the Shaar HaNegev region, and thousands of Israelis had to head for the bomb shelters. Most of the mortar rounds fell in wild and uninhabited areas, and others were intercepted by the Israeli defense systems. At least two fell in residential areas, and one exploded a short distance away from a kindergarten, which was, however, empty at the time.
The Israeli response was a show of force. Within hours, their air force and artillery struck or fired on at least 35 targets tied to Islamic Jihad and also to Hamas, not involved in the mortar attack but which the Netanyahu government considers responsible for the situation in Gaza. And while the mortar shells fired by Islamic Jihad were the largest Palestinian attack since 2014, the Israeli raids were also, in turn, the most forceful of the last four years.
The escalating series of attacks and reprisals went on throughout the day. The Israeli air raids were followed at some point by rockets fired by Islamic Jihad and the “Salah Edin Brigades” of the Popular Resistance Committees, which were also aimed at Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Israel had to activate its Iron Dome defense system several times, intercepting a part of the rockets. “Israel views with utmost gravity the attacks against it and its communities by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the Gaza Strip. The IDF will respond with great force to these attacks,” said Prime Minister Netanyahu on Twitter, adding that “Israel will exact a heavy price from anyone who tries to harm it.” Equally harsh statements were made by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who repeatedly pushed the official line that this is a confrontation with Hamas, a policy expressed in no uncertain terms by the Israeli soldiers’ fire on the Palestinian demonstrators who demanded the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
In Palestine, they are saying that peace will not return until the Israelis stand down from their siege. Tuesday evening, Egypt was engaged in an intense and difficult work of mediation to try to calm the conflict and avoid a new war that would have dire consequences, especially for the Palestinian population.