The operation, deep inside the Strip, was conducted in the midst of efforts to reach a long-term cease-fire in Gaza. It also took place hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was participating in an important international conference in Paris, explained in a lengthy and fairly convincing speech why he thinks every effort should be expended to reach an agreement in Gaza and not go to war.
Officially, Israel provides no answer to this question. The Palestinians are dispatching detailed information about the incident, but at least some of the reports seem to be mistaken. It is interesting to note, then, the series of appearances by Maj. Gen. Tal Rousso. The former chief of Southern Command, Rousso spent most of his military career in special, elite unites and does not give many media appearances. If he chose to show his public face on a night like this night, it is likely that he is helping someone send a message.
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A Hamas battalion commander, Nour Baraka, was killed in the incident in Khan Younes. The Palestinians claim this was an Israeli assassination operation. Rousso, however, denies this, as did the IDF Spokesperson's Office on Monday morning. The IDF operation, he said, was not a planned assassination operation and the Hamas commander was killed during an encounter with the fighters. According to Rousso, "most citizens are unaware" of how the IDF operates. "These are operations that take place all the time, every night, in all divisions. This is an operation that was probably uncovered. Not an assassination attempt. We have other ways to assassinate."
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It is indeed hard to believe that under these circumstances, the political echelon would approve an assassination of a medium-ranked operative in the Hamas military wing, when the gain of such an operation is unclear. Netanyahu is too invested in efforts to reach a deal with Hamas to enable such a move.
Rousso's explanation sounds more reasonable. This might have been an intelligence-gathering operation related to Hamas' military infrastructure (tunnels, weapons development). Alternatively, it could have been related to another burning issue for Israel: The captives and missing persons in Gaza.
In recent years Israel has been using the chaos in the Arab world to conduct many such operations across the border. Most of these are not blown and therefore do not reach the public.
The fact that the fighters were revealed is an operational hitch that will now require an in-depth internal military investigation. Did something in the force's conduct or in the preparations for the operation reveal the force's identity to Hamas? Still, the fact that the operation ended with one killed and one wounded while the rest of the force was safely extracted with no other casualties - and, most importantly, no hostages - is commendable. Obviously, it took a lot of resourcefulness and restraint to safely extract the force from three-kilometers deep into a crowded and hostile territory.
This grave incident will cast a shadow over the Egyptian effort to reach a long-term cease-fire. Still, despite the casualties on both sides and the launch of at least 17 rockets into Israel overnight, it does not necessarily mean the end of the negotiations. Hamas has maintained a relatively restrained response given the number of casualties. It will probably try to leverage the incident as an achievement – exposing and hitting an Israeli elite unit force – to establish the image of their muqawama (resistance) against Israel, especially afterthat image took a blow from the footage of Qatari bills arriving in suitcases last week.
Both Israel and Hamas are interested in renewing the truce. Despite the severe incident, it still seems that the night's events will not lead to escalation and to a large-scale Israeli operation in Gaza.