Just minutes after the end of a three-day ceasefire, the conflict in Gaza was on again, with Hamas back to firing rockets and Israel striking at the already devastated strip from the sea and the air — killing a 10 year-old Palestinian boy in an attack on a mosque.
The resumed fighting followed failing negotiations in Cairo, where an extension of the ceasefire collapsed over Israeli officials’ rejection of Hamas’s demand that a truce be contingent on Israel moving to lift its siege on the territory.
"We present demands that have to do with stopping the war," Azzam al Ahmad, a Palestinian official, told reporters in Egypt on Friday. “It would pave the way for a political process that would end the violence and the war and end the bloodshed.”
Shortly before the end of the 72-hour window, Israeli officials left Gaza — promising a “stiff” response.
"This is a moment of trial for Israeli deterrence in coming years,” Israel’s economics minister Naftali Bennett said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The month-long conflict has killed more than 1,877 Palestinians, according to local authorities. According to UN figures, at least 1,312 were civilians, and many children. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed, according to Israeli officials.
More than 220,000 Palestinians were displaced by the conflict, and seeking refuge in UN shelters, according to UN officials.
In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the resumption of fighting, expressing “his deep disappointment that the parties were unable to agree to an extension of the ceasefire in their talks in Cairo.”
“More suffering and death of civilians caught up in this conflict is intolerable,” he said. “The extension of the ceasefire is absolutely essential for talks to progress and to address the underlying issues of the crisis as soon as possible.”
The current operation, which the Israeli defense forces have dubbed “Protective Edge,” was launched in the aftermath of growing tensions over the abduction and murder of three young Israeli settlers in June.
Earlier this week, Israeli officials said they had arrested a suspect in the killings, and that he was funded by Hamas. The group has repeatedly denied involvement.
But a manhunt that started near Hebron, in the West Bank, quickly escalated into full conflict in Gaza, where Israeli officials set a goal to neutralize Hamas’ underground tunnels. Earlier this week, the IDF pulled its troops from the ground, claiming their mission was “accomplished.”
Longer and deadlier than Cast Lead
The latest Israeli operation in Gaza has already surpassed in duration and number of casualties operation Cast Lead — the offensive Israel launched on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009.
Israel also launched another operation — “Defensive Shield” — in 2012, which included airstrikes but not a ground invasion.
In all cases, Israeli officials said they were targeting Hamas operatives and their infrastructure, though all offensives ended up with high numbers of civilian casualties.
'It’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll be satisfied that they have achieved what they can.'
A spokesperson for the IDF declined to comment on comparisons between the current and previous operations while Protective Edge is ongoing.
“I fear that we are heading for a worse bout than we got in 2008-2009,” George Bisharat, a Palestinian-American law professor, told VICE News ahead of the three-day ceasefire. “I’m not sure when we’re gonna see an end to what’s going on. I think the Israelis’ objectives are evolving , I don’t think this was necessarily a planned venture. It’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll be satisfied that they have achieved what they can.”
Bisharat noted that the current escalation came on the backdrop of a very different political context, and with Hamas having refined its military and strategic capabilities. Israeli forces suffered significantly greater casualties this time around — with 64 soldiers killed, as opposed to the 13 killed during Cast Lead.
But the discourse surrounding the conflict has also changed when compared to that and earlier conflicts, he added.
“The political situation in Israel is very different than it was for instance in 2006 when more than 120 soldiers were lost in Lebanon and political opposition within Israel to the Lebanon war mounted over time and became significant,” Bisharat said. “That doesn’t seem to be happening this time, despite military losses. If you look at polling numbers, not to mention the videos of people chanting ‘Death to the Arabs’ or sitting on the hilltop in Sderot and watching the bombs fall and clapping. All of this points to kind of a different mood in Israel.”
Despite some anti-war protests, “the rightwing sentiment, the racist sentiment in Israel has only grown stronger,” he added. “Despite the serious military losses it’s suffering, Israel has the political will of the Israeli people behind it this time.”
'The message they have sent is, we’re gonna do whatever we want and we’re gonna get away with it.'
In Gaza, the latest conflict felt familiar, despite estimates that the proportions of civilians killed was even higher now than in previous conflicts.
“They are not that different, we have many of the same circumstances, a population under siege,” Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa program, told VICE News. “In 2009, and now 2014, we saw a military incursion into a territory from which Israel ostensibly removed its military forces but maintains really absolute control over many elements of life, and most significantly controls the border, restricting and limiting who can come in and who can leave.”
If anything, she added, Israel’s human rights violations got bolder.
“The message they have sent is, we’re gonna do whatever we want and we’re gonna get away with it,” she said. “On the one hand there’s a façade of legalism and legalities, of making statements that appear to be in line with international law — ‘We’re very carefully selecting targets, we’re sending warnings’. But when you look at their actual conduct it shows a complete disregard of international law, and that’s why we’re seeing a very high civilian casualty rate in such a short period of time.”
Growing international condemnation — with many observers finding that this conflict was scrutinized more closely than previous ones — did not much help.
“Frankly I haven’t seen it make a difference,” Whitson said. “I think that Israel treats this as a PR problem as opposed to a moral problem or a legal problem or an ethical problem. It’s a situation to be managed from a propaganda perspective. I haven’t seen any outrage or public condemnation result in any change of behavior.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
All Photos by Henry Langston