Israeli Government Ordered Military to End Gaza Fighting Before Eurovision

If understandings reached with Gazan factions aren't implemented, fighting will resume within days or weeks, defense officials say

A Palestinians boy stands in rubble of a destroyed building, Gaza City, May 6, 2019.
AFP

Israel's political leadership ordered the Israeli army to "achieve the necessary operational goals" in the recent flare-up in Gaza before the upcoming Independence Day and Eurovision Song Contest, defense officials said Monday, despite the military's position that it should show its willingness to keep fighting.

The security establishment's position, supported by intelligence sources, is that if Israel doesn't make progress in implementing the agreements with Gaza, the fighting will resume within days or weeks.

Leaders of Palestinian factions echoed this assessment Monday, saying if Israel fails to do its part, fighting would resume within the next few weeks.

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Hamas and Islamic Jihad were already willing to end the fighting on Sunday morning, defense officials said. However, the Israeli army believed that it was more important to send a message that Israel is unafraid to act, even during Eurovision, hosted by Tel Aviv next week and Independece Day, celebrated on Thursday.

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With that, the security establishment said that the political leadership instructed them to end the escalation even before the last round of fighting began, and as quickly as possible.

Israel's security establishment advised the political leadership that without an increased political effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the current calming of tensions will not hold, even in the short term.

The security establishment cannot say with certainty, even today, that Islamic Jihad will refrain from disrupting life in Israel in the days leading up to Eurovision. Even though the operations of Israel's Air Force have deterred the organization in the short term, the security establishment is of the opinion that there is still a high likelihood of escalation if no progress is made in implementing the agreements.

Since Monday morning, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have been trying to project a sense that they had won the latest round of fighting, in which four Israelis in the south of the country and 25 Palestinians in Gaza were killed. In the most recent prior round of hostilities earlier in the year, Israel also promised a significant easing of the situation for residents of Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, but Palestinian factions are reserving judgment.

Walking a thin line

For its part, Hamas succeeded in increasing its firing range in the last round compared to recent rounds, in which it refrained to avoid a full-scale war. Hamas fired some 690 rockets into Israeli territory, 240 of which were intercepted, and 21 houses were hit.

Hamas challenged the Iron Dome anti-missile system by launching large barrages at a single point. For example, between 7 and 8 P.M. Sunday, they launched 117 rockets at Ashdod. With recent technological improvements to the Iron Dome, the system was able to handle the challenge, but one rocket that got through led to the death of an Israeli citizen.

It was mainly a battle of the air force under the Southern Command. The political leadership demanded that the army come up with a strategic plan that would deter Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the near future, without leading to a large-scale war.

Despite claims by the senior political leadership that the upcoming events were not determining factors in deciding whether to continue the fighting, the military leadership operated throughout with the understanding that the escalation must end quickly. With Israel Independence Day, Memorial Day and the Eurovision Song Contest fast approaching, it was clear that the political leadership wanted to avoid fighting in proximity to those events.

The Israel Air Force and military intelligence attempted to carry out a more aggressive campaign in Gaza than in recent rounds. But they maintained the caution required to avoid promoting Hamas and Islamic Jihad from firing at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area – a situation that could have escalated into more days of fighting.

The air force's objective in this round was to strike at Islamic Jihad activists, forcing them to walk a thin line in terms of escalation. The air force had trained targeted assassinations in recent months from a desire to use the capability against the organization in Gaza. Military intelligence estimated that restoring the targeted assassinations could lead the Hamas and Islamic Jihad to fire on the Tel Aviv area. Nevertheless, it was decided to carry out the targeted assassination in order to send a clear message to the organizations that Israel is not afraid to escalate the fighting, despite the sensitive timing.

During the course of the fighting the Israeli army killed Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, carried out two targeted assassination and destroyed six targets, five weapons infrastructure sites hidden in the homes for activists' families, and an Islamic Jihad cross-border tunnel. Overall, despite difficult days of fighting, the two sides avoided a large-scale war, making it possible to reach the cease-fire that both sides so desired.

Monday morning, shortly after 4 A.M. the air force received orders to cease attacks. The military leadership took advantage of the time to attack Gaza, while it was clear to them that negotiations were underway with Egyptian and Qatari mediators behind the scenes and that a cease-fire would be called into effect in the morning.

The military leadership was instructed to complete their operations before the sensitive days of Eurovision and Independence Day. This is why the air force and military intelligence focused the operation on the central activists and significant Hamas targets, in order to send a message that Israel will exact a price for this recent escalation.

The decision led the Israeli army to give up on striking Hamas' long range missile storage facilities. It seems they will have to wait until the next round, which according to the army's assessments will take place in the coming weeks if the political leadership does not make progress on implementing the agreements to improve Gazans' daily lives.

More of the same

As occurred at the end of the dozens of rounds of fighting over the past few years, it seems as if the cease-fire agreement resembles the understandings reached by the two sides after Operation Protective Edge and Operation Pillar of Defense. This has repeatedly made it possible for both sides to claim that the situation “has returned to the status quo ante” from before the escalation, instead of having to admit to signing a new memorandum of understanding and holding negotiations.

These agreements generally include six primary clauses that the parties commit to implementing gradually, one after the other, on condition that complete quiet is maintained: A comprehensive cease-fire; the transfer of funds from Qatar and the UN; opening the crossings and increasing the fishing zone; medical and humanitarian aid, preparing an arrangement for the POWs, MIAs and prisoners; and a broad rebuilding of the infrastructures with foreign funding and the opening of talks on building air and sea ports. Generally the violence resumes during implementation of the earlier stages.

Nevertheless, according to Palestinian sources, the sum to be transferred from Qatar this time will be higher than under previous agreements. Moreover the Palestinians say, this time there are other clauses in the agreement that deal with refraining from assassinations of senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad figures. It’s possible that the Israeli side inserted a clause calling to refrain from disrupting the Memorial Day, Independence Day and Eurovision events.