A death of an IDF soldier on the Gaza border, for the first time in four years; the bombing of Hamas outposts and battalion headquarters; and threatening announcements by politicians on breaking news television segments – all these seem like the early signs of a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. But the operation is not upon us yet. One fact that attests to this is the speed in which the Palestinians accepted the Egyptian and UN cease-fire offers at midnight Friday.
Signs that an operation is not imminent were also evident in the nature of the military actions by both sides. Israel did bomb Hamas battalion headquarters, but was careful not to target senior Hamas officials. Hamas refrained from firing rockets deep into Israel even after coming under fire. The result is a U-turn on the precipice – war was avoided, perhaps just for the time being.
The incident on the border fence Friday seems to be connected to events a day earlier: On Thursday, the Israeli army fired at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary kites near a Hamas position on the border, in the southern Gaza Strip. A Hamas military wing member was killed. The military wing threatened revenge. On Friday, during protests east of Khan Younis, a Palestinian sniper shot an IDF soldier near the border. The soldier died of his wounds (his name has yet to be released).
And yet there were unusual elements to the incident that may point to a local Palestinian initiative that did not necessarily receive a green light from the top. The shooting took place while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh took part in one of the protests on the fence nearby. Usually, Hamas leaders seek to keep their distance from such incidents. Hamas positions overlooking the location were not evacuated, and when the IDF responded with tank shells at eight Hamas posts, four military wing members were killed.
The Israeli soldier is the first Israeli killed on the Gaza border since the end of the 2014 Gaza war. After the incident, in consultations held with the prime minister, the minister of defense and senior IDF and Shin Bet officials, an unusually strong response was approved. The Israel Air Force destroyed three Hamas military wing battalion headquarters. This time it wasn't a limited, selective bombing, and Hamas commanders could not just move an office – the entire headquarters was obliterated.
And yet, the time passed between the shooting and the IDF response allowed Hamas to abandon its headquarters. Israel also refrained from a further escalation for now – targeted assassinations of senior Hamas officials.
After the first Israeli strikes, one of the Palestinian factions (dubbed "rogue" by the IDF) fired several mortar shells at Israeli communities along the border. Hamas restrained his people, and the Palestinians then completely refrained from firing at Israel.
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Meanwhile, Egypt and the UN exerted significant pressure. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy to the Middle East, tweeted that "Everyone in Gaza needs to step back from the brink. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right NOW!" At midnight, the Palestinians announced a cease-fire. Mladenov and the Egyptian intelligence are now spearheading the talks. Qatar is playing a more marginal role.
The death of the soldier was a grim reminder that the conflict in Gaza does not start and end with incendiary kites and balloons. But these could still reignite the flames today or tomorrow. Hamas has told the mediators it will act to reduce these launches, but claims it will take time since some airborne firebombs are launched by "popular" groups who do not take orders from Hamas.
Meanwhile, tensions along the Gaza border are rising. And despite the relative restraint demonstrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense chief Avigdor Lieberman and IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot (the cabinet has not been convened for consultations again) it is clear that more Israeli casualties would hasten the eruption of a wider conflict. Nearly any round of violence like the one Friday begins with a more severe incident that the previous round – and at the same time begins the countdown to the next round.
On Saturday morning, the Homefront command announced "a return to the routine" for Israeli communities near the Gaza border. That is the most significant sign that Israel believes the current escalation is behind us.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration's Mideast team published an article in the Washington Post calling on Hamas to end terror in return for economic assistance for the Gaza Strip. Hamas rejected the offer, accusing Trump adviser Jared Kushner, Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador David Friedman of being "spokespeople for the Israeli occupation."
Since neither Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (who deliberately sabotage any reconstruction effort in the Gaza Strip) or Israel are going out of their way to advance a solution for the humanitarian problems in Gaza, tensions along the border remain as they were. Sooner or later they will erupt again. If the number of casualties is higher in the next round, efforts by Mladenov and Egypt may not be enough to swiftly restore calm.