Have a quiet weekend? Then you weren’t in Israel. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks Thursday in Israel’s south—in which members of a radical Gaza-based group with ties to Hamas snuck out of the Strip and into Egyptian Sinai, from which they infiltrated Israel and also fired rockets, killing eight Israelis and wounding dozens more—Israel was plunged into crises with both Egypt and Hamas. That with Egypt, which briefly looked to be among the worst since the countries signed a peace treaty in 1979 (for a time, Egypt threatened to recall its ambassador), appears to have been resolved. By contrast, Hamas’ resumption of its ceasefire yesterday not two days after renouncing it feels tenuous.
Israel’s cross-border killing of three Egyptian security officials led to the first (if inevitable) major rift with the post-Mubarak military government, anger in the streets, and feints toward a diplomatic breakdown. Extraordinarily (especially given that he did it on a Saturday), Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “We regret the deaths of members of the Egyptian security forces during the terror attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border.” That got Egypt to keep its ambassador in Tel Aviv but kept it demanding an apology and a joint probe. Yesterday, Israel pledged the probe (and quietly sent a military delegation to Cairo); as of last night, Israeli officials were insisting the crisis has passed, which is likely a combination of wishful thinking and educated guesswork.
It’s been a revealing moment. From Israel’s perspective and, given to extent to which the two countries’ interests remain aligned, from Egypt’s as well, the breakdown in security near the border, perhaps best evidenced by the multiple times saboteurs have successfully damaged a crucial Sinai natural gas pipeline, remains a real problem. Yet Israel does not want a real crisis with Egypt—contrast the swiftness with which Israel expressed regret and moved toward an apology with its continued (and correct) stubbornness toward Turkey over last year’s flotilla. Meanwhile, the temporary Egyptian government, its legitimacy already questionable and needing to mollify a restive population, has no choice but to create diplomatic to-dos where, under the previous regime, none would have existed. Put it this way: the guy who removed the flag from Cairo’s Israeli embassy is now basically a national hero.
Then there is Gaza and Hamas. After the attacks, Israel customarily retaliated, killing the leaders of The Popular Resistance Committees, which claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks. The group responded with rocket fire; Israel responded back (whether this constitutes “Both Sides … Trad[ing] Fire,” as the Times headline has it, I’ll leave to you). But unusually, Hamas stepped in, claiming responsibility for several rockets, one of which hit a house in Ofakim and injured an infant and a child. There were at least four civilian deaths in Gaza from Israeli fire (and several more terrorist ones) and at least one in Israel from a Palestinian rocket, of which at least 50 were fired since Thursday. As of Sunday evening, there was an informal resumption of the ceasefire, which the United Nations and Egypt were working to maintain, even as there were reports of rockets continuing to emanate from Gaza.
Palestinian Authority President Abbas called on the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to “halt Israeli aggression,” while his aides accused Israel of deliberately ramping things up so as to distract from next month’s statehood push. It’s possible that Israel decided to create a distraction from the impending U.N. situation (and that Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to create a distraction from the domestic social justice protests—which indeed appears to have happened) by responding to coordinated attacks that killed eight civilians. Much, much more likely, however, is that Hamas, which is barely a larger fan of the Palestinian Authority’s Turtle Bay plans than Israel is, decided to distract from them by tacitly allowing the coordinated attacks that killed eight civilians and then breaking their own ceasefire. I would go so far as to put my money on the latter proposition.
Unsurprising, then, that some Israeli politicians are calling on Netanyahu to seize the provocation and deal Hamas a substantial blow, and even invade Gaza. Yet influential Israeli columnist Ari Shavit is persuasive in advising restraint on Netanyahu’s part (he is also correct that, if the United States might be taking a wise break from the peace process itself, it absolutely needs to throw its weight around regarding security in Sinai). “A direct attack on Hamas will be perceived as disproportionate and unjustified,” he argues. “Egypt will not be able to stand aside; this time it will surely call back its ambassador from Tel Aviv and freeze the peace. The international community will not show restraint; it will present Israel as a war-monger. And when hundreds of rockets from Gaza hit Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv, the Iron Dome will be deemed ineffectual. Netanyahu will face dilemmas that tore Ehud Olmert apart.” Israel should hold off from further retaliation. And we should remember that both weekend’s crises find their origins in terrorists murdering innocents.
Egypt and Israel Move to Halt Growth of Crisis [NYT]
Egypt Says Israel’s ‘Regret’ Over Killings Doesn’t Go Far Enough [WP]
Officials: Crisis With Egypt Is Over [Ynet]
Casualties on Both Sides as Israel and Gaza Trade Fire [NYT]
Efforts Seek to Restore Calm Between Israel and Hamas [NYT]
Abbas Calls on UNSC to ‘Halt Israeli Aggression’ [JPost]
New Violence Threatens to Derail Social Protest Movement Against Israel’s High Cost of Living [AP/WP]
Netanyahu Must Not Escalate the Situation in the South [Haaretz]