Tensions between Gaza militants and Israel have continued growing over the past year. Palestinian groups have accused Israel of not abiding by previous agreements. On the Israeli side, Palestinian threats and sporadic escalations have reinforced calls for a more significant and lasting response to the instability surrounding the Gaza Strip. As pressure builds toward a more intense conflict between them, temporary escalations continue to test both sides' restraint.
Over the course of May 4 and 5, rocket fire by Gazan militant groups into southern Israel — and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire into the Gaza Strip — escalated to an exceptionally high level once again. A relative peace returned early on May 6 after Egyptian mediation efforts led to a cease-fire. But during the two-day escalation, Palestinian militants — primarily represented by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — launched nearly 700 artillery rockets and mortar rounds into Israel from the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire struck around 350 targets belonging to Palestinian militants. Unlike during the previous escalation in March, no longer-range rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv, and rocket fire was mostly limited to the immediate vicinity of the Gaza Strip.
Why It Matters
The weekend escalation wasn't unforeseen. Before May 4, Palestinian militant groups had made clear warnings of increased activity, and Israel had already redeployed a number of Iron Dome batteries to respond to potential rocket fire out of Gaza. Following previous rounds of escalation over the past year (most notably those in March 2019 and November 2018), tensions have continued to build between Gaza and Israel; May will be a particularly tense period for them.
So far, escalations have consistently ended with cease-fire agreements, but they are showing incremental movement toward the use of more extreme tactics. During the March round of conflict, Palestinian groups fired rockets at Tel Aviv, which they hadn't done since Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and Operation Pillar of Defense 2012. This weekend's fighting, despite high volumes of fire, showed more restraint in that regard. Israeli retaliation, however, included its first direct assassination strikes since 2014. One airstrike targeted an alleged Hamas financier in a moving vehicle, while several others struck residences of militant leaders, reportedly killing at least one high-ranking Palestinian Islamic Jihad official. Though Israel had not conducted assassination operations in Gaza since 2014, Gaza policy hard-liners such as former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have consistently called for them.
Following an intense weekend of back-and-forth strikes, the cease-fire commitment has spurred disappointment among hard-liners and Israeli southerners living in areas frequently targeted by rocket fire. And the nature of Israel's response to threats from Gaza is a key element in ongoing government formation talks following Israel's April 9 legislative election.
So far, escalations between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces have consistently led to cease-fire agreements, but they are showing incremental movement toward the use of more extreme tactics.
While the use of direct assassination tactics could be considered a concession to those hard-liners, Israel is otherwise showing major restraint toward Gaza for now, accepting the cease-fire rather than continuing air operations or even starting a ground incursion. One explanation may be that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid disruptions to the Eurovision Song Contest, which Israel is hosting and which the government hopes will draw many foreign visitors to Israel. Netanyahu may also be striving to keep conditions relatively stable as Israel works to form a government.
Once some of these constraints have passed, the pressure that has been building between Gaza and Israel is likely to erupt into a more significant showdown before the year is out.