Experts say Gaza and Israel have fought with restraint, but rising tensions could still flare into ‘an unnecessary war’

The Iron Dome air-defense system fires to intercept a rocket over the city of Ashdod, Israel. Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
  • A brief but intense escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ended in a quick cease-fire agreement on Tuesday.
  • Experts warn that despite Netanyahu’s attempts to prevent all-out war – and perhaps because of them – the situation can quickly unravel.
  • Wednesday morning, the Israeli Defence Minister resigned, calling the agreement a “capitulation to terror.”

The dust is far from settled in what experts say is the most intense escalation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions since 2014, despite both sides agreeing to a cease-fire Tuesday.

At least seven Palestinians and one Israeli died as a result of the fighting, which began Sunday after an Israeli special forces operation went awry. Hamas responded with a barrage of about 400 rockets, which in turn prompted Israeli airstrikes that hit a reported 100 militant positions in Gaza.

Both sides agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, ending the barrage in less than 24 hours.

While every life lost is tragic, experts recognise that the conflict could have been much worse, and that both sides showed a great deal of restraint in order to prevent all-out war.

“Every tactical incident has the potential to escalate into a strategic event,” said Neri Zilber, adjunct fellow for The Washington Institute, in a Tuesday call with reporters. “There are incentives on both sides to keep the situation quiet.”

This calibrated restraint, said Zilber, may be evidenced by a video of an anti-tank missile striking an Israeli military bus near the Gaza border. Dozens of Israeli soldiers had reportedly offloaded just before the missile strike. Zilber emphasised it is difficult to prove whether the missile team watched the bus offload, but this could be an attempt to limit casualties.

Zilber said with these types of strikes, Hamas is playing a “clever game.”

“Hamas has learned that Israel and [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu don’t really want a war,” he said.

The attacks were preceded by a positive week for Gazans, who received the first installation of Qatari financial aid. What will eventually amount to $US90 million is meant to improve Gazan infrastructure, and indicates Netanyahu’s determination to stem economic collapse in the region, Zilber said.

For Netanyahu’s part, Zilber also said the prime minister knows escalation will harm those efforts, and believes that the only way forward is to ensure that Gazans have something to lose. He says that’s why the Israeli leader would so quickly agree to cease fire.

What remains unclear is whether – and for how long – the Israeli public will “appreciate that nuance,” according to Zilber. He suggests pressure may start to build against Netanyahu from the ground up, noting that residents in the Israeli south are already angry with the government for not being more forceful against Hamas after rocket attacks.

On Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned, calling the cease-fire a “capitulation to terror” and calling for immediate elections to replace the existing government, according to the Times of Israel.

In a press conference in Paris on Sunday, Netanyahu explained his decision to operate with restraint, saying he is doing “everything I can to prevent an unnecessary war.”

According to Zilber, whether the most recent cease-fire will last hinges on whether Netanyahu can convince Israelis that reaching an agreement with Hamas is the only way to prevent such a war.