Is a ground invasion imminent?

Missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome defence system rise to confront rockets from Gaza (Photo: AFP)

Yesterday afternoon Israel yet again gave the word. Residents were given an hour to evacuate the al-Jala’a tower building in Gaza before airstrikes raised it to the ground. The block is known for housing the offices of Middle East Eye, the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, which is esteemed for its on the ground reporting from the occupied territories during periods of intense conflict. The building’s rooftop offered 24-hour live shots of arterial fire between the opposing forces and is revered as a site for ongoing broadcasting by journalists.

In a tweet, the IDF commented that the building was struck for “containing Hamas military intelligence assets”. It argues that this assumption alone makes the twelve story, largely residential tower block a justifiable target under international law, without providing the evidence or intelligence to prove that such assets exist.

The air strikes come after six days of intense conflict in the Gaza Strip, a small and incredibly densely populated region of 1.9 million across 140 square miles. It is governed by Hamas and its militant wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades.

In a statement, Al Jazeera promised to “pursue every available route to hold the Israeli government responsible for its actions”. Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt commented that “the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today”. 

Thousands have now been displaced from such attacks in the occupied territory, with 145 deaths and over 950 injured according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. Infrastructure and services still devastated by the 2014 ground invasion and 2007 Israeli-Egyptian blockade mean 12-hour power shortages and lack of water supply.   

Earlier Saturday Israeli strikes hit the al-Shati refugee camp, the rationale for which remains unclear. 10 Palestinians of a single household were killed. Dozens of missiles were fired into Israel in retaliation for the incident, with a 50-year-old man killed in Tel Aviv. According to emergency services this brings the nation’s death toll to 10.

Al-Shati refugee camp, the place where displaced Palestinians took shelter after their exile from Palestine during the Nakba in 1948, is seen in Gaza City, Gaza on 15 May, 2017 (Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency)

Israeli authorities are well versed on their narrative of defensive action. In a speech yesterday, Netanyahu said “the party that bears the guilt for this confrontation is not us, it’s those attacking us”. This finger pointing serves two purposes. It reignites the nation’s historical fears of its Arab neighbours, justifying any military operation weakening this threat. More directly, it undermines the Palestinian cause, dismissing their justifications of defensive action. 

Incidents in the Gaza strip act as a reminder of the disproportional warfare and heavy handedness Palestinians face from Israeli forces more generally. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel obtained internal communications between armed Israeli Jewish extremists, revealing efforts to “kill Palestinians” and “break all their bones”. Deputy general director Sawsan Zaher spoke with Al Jazeera, commenting that “they are being accompanied by the police, they arrive in right-wing buses to mixed cities with police, and they are not being arrested by the police”.

Saturday’s airstrike on Gaza based media outlets is an attempt to shift the narrative away from Israeli disproportionate warfare. The day aligned with both the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, and global solidarity protests for the Palestinian plight to self-determination.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators attend a protest following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in London, Britain May 11, 2021. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)

The Biden Administration has sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel and is calling for de-escalation in the region. It continues to toe the line of previous governments, recognising the Israeli right to self-defence while failing to call out its acts of aggression in the Gaza strip, nationalist violence in the country and shootings in the West Bank.  

This new US government has shown its cards as one uninterested in protracted Middle Eastern conflicts. It’s sought to subdue statements from the UN and indeed, the Security Council meeting on the subject. One thing is evident, the nation cannot be relied on by the international community for effective mediation and de-escalation negotiations.

President Biden condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and said the United States’ position was that Jerusalem should be “a place of peace.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Events of recent weeks have acted to stabilise Bibi and Benny’s cling to power. After four elections in two years, the Prime Minister failed yet again to negotiate a coalition government with his Likud Party. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett was set to agree a “government of change” with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid within days of the Al-Aqsa clashes and forcible removal of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, catalysts for current conflict. 

The deal symbolised hope for a more centrist Israeli government, one reflective of the relative peace the nation saw in recent years. This was strengthened by normalisation deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. It will not eventuate however, with Bennett now seeking a larger unity government and re-establishing dialogue with Likud. He has until June 2nd to broker a deal before Israelis will yet again be asked to the ballet.

The building housing the offices of the AP and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (Hatem Moussa)

The demolishing of al-Jala’a potentially indicates Israeli intention to launch a ground offensive in Gaza in the coming days. Netanyahu has ordered troops to the border and called up at least 7,000 reservists in preparation for an offensive. Worryingly, the targeting of media outlets indicates a will to reduce coverage of ongoing operations, attempting to seize control of a spiralling international narrative. 

Equally however, Israel’s leadership are all too aware of how guerrilla warfare tactics better suit Hamas. Ground invasion in Gaza would play to this, and could result in a long conflict with high military casualties. Whether Netanyahu is willing to risk these domestic optics remains to be seen.

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