This Saturday, perhaps the largest escalation between the Palestinian armed factions and Israeli military occurred, when 2 rockets — allegedly fired by Hamas — struck the sea near Israel’s Tel Aviv. With Israel provoking Gaza frequently since the unconditional ceasefire in May last year, the Israelis now threaten war and the murder of a Palestinian political prisoner on hunger strike.
Israel announced, following the fall of two rockets from Gaza in the sea off of Tel Aviv, that their military would be presenting options for retaliation to their political leadership. The rockets seemingly came out of nowhere and shocked many, leading to speculation as to whether they were fired by Hamas, which runs Gaza, fired by another group, or whether it was a mistake due to weather complications.
Regardless of whether the rocket fire was deliberate, it created an entirely new situation strategically between Israel and Gaza. To understand this game of chess, or war, we must analyze the tensions between both sides and the possibilities for one to aggress against the other.
Most key here has been the case of Hisham Abu Hawash, a Palestinian political prisoner currently on a 138 day hunger strike. He has been on the hunger strike after being imprisoned and held under administrative detention (held without a charge). The intention was to force Israel to give him a fair court decision which would allow him a date for release and to win his basic rights whilst inside Israel’s military prison system. Israel released a number of other prisoners who had performed similar hunger strikes, allowing them to deteriorate to the point of near death before doing so. But in the case of Hisham Abu Hawash, he has now reportedly entered a coma and is likely to pass away within a matter of days.
Hisham is aligned with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Party (PIJ), which vowed an escalation of some sort in response if Israel allowed him to die of his hunger strike. This quickly got the UN and Egypt involved to try and convince Israel to negotiate a release of the political prisoner. But Israel is yet to budge, and it would seem that they have prepared for the scenario under which Abu Hawash passes away.
This means that Israel must have considered the possibility that PIJ would launch strikes against Israel from Gaza, sparking a new battle or even war if it escalated dramatically. If this is the case, and we assume Israel was/is seeking a confrontation with Gaza’s armed groups, it is very possible that they were weighing a strike to initiate the violence and catch Hamas or PIJ off guard.
Last week, an unknown shooter injured a security worker contracted by the Israeli military along the Gaza separation fence, firing bullets towards him from a Kalashnikov. Israel immediately opened artillery fire on three locations in Gaza’s East, injuring three farmers according to Gaza’s health ministry. Israeli military officials were quoted at the time as saying that another response was being weighed, but held off from initiating further violence that night.
Israel had, following the ceasefire last May, bombarded open sites in Gaza, in what they called a response to balloons — with flammable objects attached — being flown over the fences and walls into Israel. But these strikes were entirely ineffective and were just for show, to appease their own public.
Israel, according to its current actions, may well have been planning a so-called “targeted assassination” of members belonging to PIJ or Hamas. This is not a certainty, but by simply following their behaviour it indicates they are seeking an escalation. If so, the best way for them to get the better of an exchange with Gaza’s armed factions would be to hit first and assassinate members of one of the factions. This is simply speculation, but from a strategic perspective — if they were considering manufacturing an escalation — it is one of the most viable options.
Since last May’s ceasefire, indirect negotiations have been ongoing between Israel and Hamas, on a prisoner exchange and the reconstruction of Gaza after Israel brutally pummeled the besieged coastal enclave. Hamas has recently voiced frustration at Israel’s lack of initiative and ability to reach a deal, much needed by the Gazan civilian population which inhabit an area considered by experts at the United Nations to be unlivable since 2020. This frustration on behalf of the Hamas government led them to threaten small steps to escalate tensions in order to pressure Israel. They also asserted their readiness to defend the territory by way of war if necessary.
Now that the rocket fire has occurred, its symbolic importance has put Israel on the back foot strategically. Now, Israel will not be seen as the initiators but will have the course of the battle dictated to them in the initial stage — if this does indeed escalate into an armed exchange. What’s more, PIJ has now officially vowed a retaliation and prepared its troops, withdrawing them to safe locations sheltered from assassination attempts, and preparing its weapons for an exchange. Also, an armed wing of PIJ which operates out of Jenin refugee camp (West Bank) has vowed a retaliation itself, and the prisoners belonging to PIJ in Israel’s military prisons have declared their readiness to escalate tensions inside the jails “no matter the cost”.
Instantly, the rocket fire has transformed the strategic landscape, energized Palestinian activists, political prisoners and armed factions, placing Israel in a more vulnerable predicament in the event of an escalation.
The worst case scenario is for Israel to follow through with strikes on Gaza, Abu Hawash to die in prison, and the situation deteriorates into an armed clash. This could mean war, but both sides do not want an all-out war, for various reasons. For Israel, a repeat of May could mean the rupturing of the power-sharing government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. For Hamas and PIJ, a war will mean immense suffering for Gaza’s civilian population regardless of whether they are able to score another strategic victory over the Israeli military, as was the case last year. Additionally, the lack of a central role for Jerusalem in this fight, means that for the Palestinian side, the energy that was behind May’s revolt will likely not be as great this time around. The most favorable circumstances for PIJ/Hamas would be found in focusing the escalation on the issue of Jerusalem. If escalation does occur, PIJ may be the predominant Party which fights Israel, rather than Hama.