Last week, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense into the Gaza Strip in response to increased rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel. The relationship between Israel and the Gaza Strip has long been tumultuous, and there is a complex web of political and national motivations behind the missile launches into Israel. After almost two years of civil war between Hamas and Fatah following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Hamas took control of Gaza and sent Fatah supporters to the West Bank, deepening the intra-Palestinian divide. Between December 2008 and January 2009, Israel carried out an operation in Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Four years later, Israel initiated Operation Pillar of Defense.
While Hamas governs in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by the secular Fatah party governs in the West Bank. The PA faces sustained budget problems, leading to doubts about its capacity to govern. While the PA positions itself for negotiations with Israel, it is also preparing to initiate a bid for recognition as a “non-member state” within the UN. Recently, Hamas has been forced out of its headquarters in Damascus due to turmoil in Syria, and the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza has remained restricted, with Egypt usually allowing no more than 1,000 Palestinians to pass through each day in order to avoid a mass exodus into Egypt. After two years of relative quiet along the Israel-Gaza border, Hamas fired 760 rockets into Israel between the beginning of 2012 and last week’s launch of Operation Pillar of Defense. Hamas may be under pressure by neighboring factions in Gaza to act against Israel, or the attacks may be Hamas’ way of distinguishing itself from the PA, which relies on talk over action. On Friday November 17th, militants in Gaza launched rockets targeting Jerusalem, triggering the city’s air raid sirens and marking the first time a rocket has landed near the city since 1970. Because Jerusalem is home to both a large Palestinian population and some of Islam’s holiest sites, the militants appear to want to issue a threat more than they want to inflict physical destruction.
The recent rocket fire disrupted normal life in southern Israel. The stress from the first air siren in Jerusalem made me physically sick, and at least one million Israeli citizens have been under the strain of regular threat. Last week, before the Israeli operation was launched, a friend from Ashdod told me, “The sirens keep playing in my head like a song on repeat.” Israeli citizens placed enormous pressure on their government to take action against this rocket fire. Operation Pillar of Defense was the government’s response, and was planned in four stages: targeted killings, disabling of long-range missile capabilities, destruction of terrorist infrastructure, and ground operations. Mindful of the UN’s 2009 Goldstone Report implying that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) violated international human rights and humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead, Israel is aware that the public could scrutinize its actions in Gaza and accuse Israel of war crimes, such as reacting disproportionally. As part of Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF mobilized 54,000 reservists, including people I know, to the south of Israel near the Gaza border. One friend was called at 2:30am on November 16th and showed for duty without knowing if he would serve for three days or three months. He remained on standby, waiting to either move or go home. Fellow Hebrew University students were called in the middle of class, and many who have not been called had their bags packed and ready.
The eyes of all in this land eagerly watched as Ban Ki Moon and Secretary Hillary Clinton travelled to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo to meet with leaders in negotiating a ceasefire. Hamas refuses to negotiate directly with Israel, so Egypt brokered the truce between the parties. The Egyptian government is still finding its feet, and the new Egyptian President Morsi’s incipient relationships with parties in Israel and Gaza raise questions about Egypt’s ability to secure and enforce this ceasefire.
At one point in writing this piece, air raid sirens sounded outside my Jerusalem apartment for the second time. A bomb was just detonated on a bus in Tel Aviv, drastically raising the level of alarm among Jerusalemites. Hours later, social media showered us with news that a ceasefire had been reached. Though a ceasefire is now in force, this conflict is nowhere near resolved. Let us not allow the recent headlines and immediate security threats eclipse the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us remember that not even the best-case scenario for the ceasefire can heal the roots of the conflict, which are as desperate for our attention as ever.
Catie Burleson is a visiting graduate student in international affairs at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an intern at the Jerusalem Institute of Justice.