World News

A Battle in Gaza Neither Side Wanted Ends Quickly

Posted November 13, 2018 6:49 p.m. EST

ASHKELON, Israel — The woman emerged dazed from the rubble, suffering from multiple injuries and barely able to speak. Her new husband, Mahmoud Abu Asaba, 48, had been pulled from beneath her amid the ruins of their fourth-story bedroom in an Ashkelon apartment building early Tuesday.

Improbably, Abu Asaba was the only person killed in Israel in more than 24 hours of rocket and mortar fire from the Gaza Strip, a staggering bombardment of at least 460 projectiles, many of which made it past Israel’s vaunted air defenses.

Just as improbably, he was not an Israeli but a Palestinian, from Halhoul, near the West Bank city of Hebron.

The randomness of his death put a fitting bookend on this latest paroxysm of violence in the bleak saga of Gaza-Israeli dysfunction, which began Monday afternoon and had run its course by Tuesday afternoon.

The night-and-daylong attack by Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other militant factions terrorized residents in the bustling cities of Ashkelon and Sderot and in smaller communities across southern Israel. Israel responded with waves of airstrikes that pounded military targets and leveled several tall buildings used by Hamas, leaving a number of Palestinians homeless.

But for all its intensity, the casualty toll could have been much higher. In Gaza, seven people were killed and 26 wounded. In Israel, Abu Asaba was killed and 18 people were wounded.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Hamas leaders announced a cease-fire and Israel eventually followed suit. The abrupt and inconclusive outcome sparked celebrations in Gaza. It left Israel’s government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, contending with accusations of being soft on Hamas.

That the battle began at all was unexpected. Neither Israel and Hamas wanted a fight. Both had been taking steps, with Egypt’s mediation and Qatar’s financing, to cool tensions along their border and ease Gaza’s growing economic desperation.

Israel had allowed fuel to reach Gaza’s underpowered electrical plant and cash to reach Hamas’ underpaid civil servants. Hamas had promised to curtail border protests and the use of incendiary balloons that had torched vast stretches of Israeli farmland. There was cautious optimism that further progress could be made.

Then, Sunday night, came the kind of military mishap that Israel boasts almost never happens. An elite undercover squad on an intelligence mission in Khan Younis had its cover blown. It was the sort of foray undertaken frequently, albeit with great planning and precaution, to plant surveillance equipment or rendezvous with a Palestinian source.

Fighting their way to safety with the help of heavy airstrikes, the Israelis lost a lieutenant colonel and killed seven Palestinian fighters.

For Hamas, already reeling from domestic criticism it had sold out the Palestinian cause for a pile of cash, the battle in Khan Younis was a public-relations bonanza. Its fighters were praised for valiantly defending their territory and heroically running off the Israeli invaders.

But Hamas also accused Israel of deliberately sabotaging the nascent cease-fire. And it had seven dead fighters to avenge.

Hamas, along with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other armed Gaza factions, took its time in responding. At 4:30 p.m. Monday, the groups unleashed a well-coordinated rocket barrage on a scale not seen before, the Israeli military said. Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst of Palestinian politics, said the Gaza factions sensed that Israel’s eagerness to contain the fighting and avoid a full-blown ground conflict gave them unusually capacious room to maneuver.

“They controlled the timing of it,” she said. “They controlled the level of escalation. They controlled the flames.”

For example, the Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile at a civilian bus that had just dropped off about 50 Israeli soldiers. One soldier was seriously wounded and the bus was destroyed. But Hamas released a video showing it had waited patiently for the bus to empty out before shooting.

“If they had hit that bus while it was full, guaranteed, we’d be in a war right now,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Israel ratcheted up its response, in a calibrated way, Thrall said. In the last Gaza war, in 2014, Israel waited until the conflict’s final days to destroy tall buildings, and it deduced that doing so had a powerful effect on Hamas.

So on Monday night, with rockets hitting Israeli neighborhoods, the army did not wait: It began leveling Gaza towers housing Hamas’ television and radio stations, military intelligence and other operations.

To avoid civilian casualties, the army first warned the occupants to evacuate. And by Tuesday, Israeli social media was rife with mockery of the army’s “empty building” strategy, Meir said.

“You have to admit, it looks ridiculous,” he observed. “I don’t think that’s what’s going to make Hamas change its behavior.”

Meantime, Israel allowed its southern cities to be blasted from the sky and ordered its citizens to spend many hours in bomb shelters before venturing out tentatively on Tuesday.

Tuesday night, as the cease-fire was backhandedly confirmed by the Israeli government — when a right-wing member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition publicly denied that he had supported it — fed-up residents of Sderot erupted. Shouting “Disgrace!” and “Bibi go home!” they set tires on fire, blocked off streets and railed against Netanyahu for allowing the conflict to end without a more decisive blow to the Palestinians. Opposition leaders accused Netanyahu of having no strategy for Gaza.

The government does have a strategy, said Celine Touboul, a Gaza expert at Israel’s Economic Cooperation Foundation. But it is so replete with contradictions that it may be unworkable.

Above all, the Israeli government wants quiet on the Gaza border, she said, but it is refusing to adopt measures that could achieve quiet, like allowing thousands of Gaza laborers to work in Israel.

The government says it supports Egyptian efforts to broker a reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank. But it has done little to encourage the Palestinian Authority to reconcile and return to control over Gaza.

And while Israel refuses to consider a political deal with Hamas, Touboul said, “it doesn’t want to undermine their position to the extent that they can’t enforce a cease-fire.”

In a way, then, Israel got at least part of what it wanted: Hamas’ position in Gaza has been strengthened enough for it to resume talks on a cooling-off at the border. Which brings the two sides more or less back where they were on Sunday morning.

Except for the dead and wounded, and the dozens of civilians in Gaza and Israel whose homes were heavily damaged or destroyed. In Gaza City, Abu Hurayra al-Yazji, 34, said he was awakened from a sound sleep early Tuesday morning by banging on his apartment door. An Israeli soldier had telephoned his brother with a warning to roust his neighbors: The building was about to be bombed.

Before he could get his wife and two children outside, Yazji said, the first missile struck one wing of the five-story building. From the street, they saw more missile strikes turn the rest of it to rubble.

“My kids were crying from horror,” he said.

Across the border in Ashkelon, apartment buildings were struck by missiles fitted with oversized explosive charges, Palestinian militants said.

Abu Asada, the Palestinian who was killed in Israel, had trained to be a sea captain but had been working as a contractor in Israel for 15 years, according to an uncle, Emad Khalil Abu Asaba. About six months ago, he married his second wife — his first wife and five children remained in Halhoul — and moved with her into a dilapidated rental building. Their fellow tenants, including working-class Ethiopian, Russian and Moroccan Jews and Arabs, barely know each other by sight.

All were left homeless. Tamasgen Melke, 28, a factory worker who lived on the first floor, said he saw a ball of fire and thought the apartment house would collapse.

“Before I even got out of bed the window blew out,” he said.

Abu Asada’s body and his wife were not discovered until about 90 minutes after emergency workers had completed its search of the building.

An urban renewal worker, Shlomi Lankri, who had driven across town to inspect the wreckage, climbed three flights out of sheer curiosity.

He heard a faint sound, like scratching in the sand. Then, peering into the rubble by the light of his cellphone, long after rescue workers had moved on to another blast site, he saw something move. It was the hand of Abu Asada’s wife, whose name has not been released.

Abu Asada’s family was to receive survivor benefits from the Jewish Agency, which has a fund for victims of terrorist attacks in Israel. Isaac Herzog, the agency’s chairman, said it will be the first such award to a non-Israeli citizen.