Analysis: Potential for Conflict Escalation Following Covert Operation in The Gaza Strip

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Palestinian Territories, Israel

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Security  Unrest  Conflict

The Clash

Seven Hamas elements and one Israeli officer have been confirmed dead, following a clash emanating from an Israel Defence Force (IDF) covert operation inside the Gaza Strip, during the night of Sunday, 11 November. The operation was conducted in the Bani Suheila area of Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, where an IDF unit was allegedly aiming to apprehend Nour Baraka, a prominent member of the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Baraka was subsequently killed following the clash.

It is reported that an armed engagement broke out after the undercover unit aroused suspicion whilst travelling in a civilian vehicle near Baraka’s residence. Al-Qassam forces pursued the vehicle as it withdrew towards the Israeli border, which was supported by Israeli Air Force (IAF) airstrikes. This was followed by retaliatory rocket attacks from a Hamas-controlled enclave.

According to an IDF source, at least fifteen missiles were fired into Israeli territory, with the ‘Iron Dome’ air-defence system intercepting three. Flight times at Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) were altered, and roads, train stations, and schools in the vicinity of Gaza were closed after rocket alerts were activated. No further casualties were reported during this exchange. Israel confirmed the death of one of its forces in an incident, but declined to comment further, stating only that there was an “exchange of fire” during ‘operational activity” in the Gaza Strip.

A Setback for Ceasefire

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his visit to Paris for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War One on Sunday to return to Israel as a result of the incident, underlying the severity of the situation. It comes days after Netanyahu pledged to create a more stable political situation in Gaza in a bid to avoid further conflict. IDF clandestine operations within Gaza have not been used as a tactic in recent years, and it is feared that the incident could lead to an escalation in Palestinian-Israeli tensions and violence.

It follows a week of relative calm as Egypt was reportedly making progress in attempts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and two days after Israel approved a $15m (£12m) payment by Qatar for outstanding Palestinian civil servant salaries. Politically, this clash is likely to be a setback for any informal agreements reached. The international community, particularly Egypt, had been pushing for a deal that would seek to formulate a long term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.

Violent Demonstrations Likely to Persist

Recently, relations between the two have worsened since the outbreak of the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations, which commenced on 30 March 2018. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has reported that there have been a total of 217 Palestinian deaths in the context of these mass demonstrations, and other activities along the perimeter fence with Israel.

These protests occur every Friday, and involve rock throwing, tyre burning and attempted border breaches, in addition to the launching of incendiary balloons and kites. Some reports suggest that after the Qatari payment was approved, Hamas visibly decreased the intensity of that week’s demonstration on 9 November, but Sunday’s incident is likely to see them intensify in nature once more.

What Does the Future Hold?

The implications and timing of this event has the potential to alter the short term security situation but it is unlikely to change the long term outlook in the region. The reaction to IDF covert operations targeting Hamas leaders in Gaza will potentially serve to aggravate tensions at the border and across the Palestinian Territories leading to retaliatory violence.

Likely indicators of conflict escalation and increased risk to civilians are; a breakdown in ceasefire talks, intensified conflict rhetoric, increased violent protests, an increase in rocket attacks, and the mobilisation of forces along the border.