Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired over 60 rockets against Israel on Sunday and Monday before appearing to declare a ceasefire that may yet overshadow the Knesset election next week.
The exchange of fire was sparked off on Sunday, when Israeli forces spotted two members of Islamic Jihad trying to lay an explosive device by the border fence east of the south Gaza town of Khan Younis. The two were hit by an Israeli anti-tank missile.
Similar clashes take place nearly every week, sometimes more often, on the Gaza border. What made this incident different was the arrival of an Israeli armoured force which tried to capture the bodies before the Palestinians gathered them.
Israel currently holds dozens of bodies of Palestinian fighters caught in and around Gaza over the past few years. They are being held as bargaining counters for bodies held by Hamas.
Although the tactic is not out of the ordinary for either side, the image of one of the Palestinian bodies being dangled by an Israeli armoured bulldozer inflamed passions inside Gaza.
On Sunday evening, the Islamic Jihad group began firing salvoes of rockets on Israeli communities near Gaza. The rockets, some of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, did not cause any casualties.
Israel responded with air strikes on three Islamic Jihad — but not Hamas — positions in Gaza itself. But in a rare development Israel also claimed that it had attacked targets of the Islamic Jihad near Damascus
The Gaza salvoes continued throughout Monday. They ironically take place in a period when Israel and Hamas have reached agreements on “easing” the closure of Gaza, including an enlarged offshore fishing area, 2,000 new permits for individuals from Gaza to travel daily in Israel and an expansion of exports from the strip.
While Israel refers to those allowed to leave daily as “traders”, most of them are actually day labourers who work on farms, building sites and restaurants in nearby Israeli communities and towns.
The Israeli cabinet has approved an unofficial policy of trying to get as many salaries into the unemployment-stricken region to create a greater incentive for maintaining the calm.
In 2019, there were 350,000 movements through the Erez crossing to Israel and 40,000 tons of Gazan products, mainly fruit and vegetables, were exported, largely to the West Bank and Jordan. Attempts are now being made to enable exports to Europe as well.
But the obstacles to achieving an orderly long-term truce remain — and as they have been for years, they are mainly political. The Israeli government is loath to grant further concessions to Hamas as long as the movement holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians in Gaza.
Hamas is holding out for a larger prisoner deal and reluctant to openly confront Islamic Jihad and relinquish its own status as the main “resistance” movement to Israel.
The fact that all this is happening on the eve of a critical election for the Netanyahu government only makes things more difficult for the Israeli side.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that “if there isn’t a total cessation (of rockets), we will be forced to implement a much wider campaign we have prepared.”
But the last thing he wants is to go to the polls in a week while rockets are still falling on Israelis around Gaza.
His defence minister Naftali Bennett was more frank during a visit to Sderot where he said: “we’re heading to a ceasefire, it’s complex to embark on a wide campaign a week before the election.”
As the rockets fell on Sderot and neighbouring communities, the crossings remained open, “traders” and shipments of produce went in and out, and the Egyptians, the United Nations and Hamas scrambled to try and get the Islamic Jihad leaders to agree to a ceasefire.
Unless something else unexpected happens, Islamic Jihad will probably make do with this latest salvo of rockets and then hold their fire until the next time.