In Depth

Another Gaza war: why Israel wanted to batter Hamas

This is more about dividing Palestinians for political ends than it is about three dead Israeli teenagers

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“Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” These were the words spoken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon the discovery in the West Bank of the bodies of three kidnapped and murdered teenagers. The Israeli boys had been hitchhiking home when they went missing 18 days earlier.

Netanyahu has not offered any proof for his assertion, and Hamas have denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the incident.

Even if two missing Hamas figures, Marwan Kawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, are responsible, there is zero evidence their actions were in any way sanctioned or run by the party’s main command. But in the words of Israeli military spokesman Lt-Col Peter Lerner: “We don’t feel that [such orders were] actually necessary.”

So Hamas's culpability is now an accepted fact, and has become the spark for what looks to become yet another bloody (on one side) Israel-Gaza conflict.

It is tempting to see this as yet another random escalation of violence, the conclusion of the latest in decades of rounds of tit-for-tat killings and rockets and air raids and arrests. Distressing but understandable given all the tension and hatred and so on. But there is something else at play here, and as usual, one only needs to look at who benefits from all of this to find the answer.

What has Israel been angry about for months? Fatah and Hamas's latest unity pact, designed to unite the fractured occupied Palestinian territories as a prelude to building a viable state. What looks like it's about to fall apart as a result of recent events? Fatah and Hamas's unity pact, which is being derailed in the face of their differing positions on developments and Gaza’s descent into full-on war. Coincidence? Definitely not.

After the kidnapping was discovered, Israeli security forces went on a rampage through the West Bank in a bid to find the missing boys. During raids on homes, universities, media offices and charities, 400 people were arrested, most of them members or activists within Hamas, and five were killed, including a 14-year-old boy.

One of those detained was Aziz Duwaik, a moderate Hamas figure who has never been accused of involvement in terrorism and is currently Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Based in the West Bank, many see Duwaik as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian Authority given that Abbas’s term expired in 2009 - and it is not a role that Israel ever wants a Hamas figure to fill.

Further, Israel must have known that Abbas’s Palestinian Authority would not want to be seen to condone violence and would have to cooperate with the campaign of raids, something Hamas has been sharply critical of, calling it “harmful to Palestinian reconciliation”.

So there is method to all this madness.

As tensions continued to rise, rockets started to be fired from Gaza into Israel. By 30 June, the day the boys’ bodies were found, the Palestinian rockets and Israeli air raid tit-for-tat was well underway, but Hamas – who at that point hadn’t fired rockets into Israel since Operation Pillar of Defense ended in November 2012 – hadn’t claimed them.

Although the rockets caused no casualties and were largely seen as having come from separate, smaller Islamist groups, Israel’s reaction was the usual one: Hamas is responsible for everything that comes out of the Strip.

Palestinian anger was exacerbated when, on 2 July, the body of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was found burned to death in an apparent revenge attack for the teens’ murder. The next day, his American-born cousin who was visiting on holiday was filmed being brutally beaten by Israeli security forces.

The Gaza/Israel rocket/air-raid exchange continued last weekend with no injuries in Israel and several deaths in Gaza. By this Monday, Hamas was claiming responsibility for rockets for the first time since that eight-day 2012 war that killed about 180 Palestinians and six Israelis, with its attacks triggering warning sirens as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

And so, on Tuesday, Israel began Operation Protective Edge, and has since struck more than 400 sites and killed at least 41 Palestinians. In the same period, more than 225 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza, causing no more than minor injuries. The stage is set for another one-sided war.

In all likelihood, the damage to Hamas’s recent attempt to clean up its image and involve itself in a unity pact accepted by the West is already done. The conditions have also been created for Israel to say they are justified in battering Hamas and its supporters with brutal force. Both serve Israel’s goal of having peace on its own terms with the partners it chooses.

"The operation against Hamas will expand in the coming days, and the price the organisation will pay will be very high,” said Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon today.

His words chime almost perfectly with those spoken by Netanyahu to his Cabinet nearly a month ago, just two days after the teens' abduction was discovered: "Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas, the same Hamas that Abu Mazen [Abbas] made a unity government with. This has severe repercussions."

It’s almost as if Israeli officials wanted events to unfold as they did.

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