Cost of Botched Gaza Spy Mission? Israel’s Back on Brink of War

JERUSALEM — On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured Israelis weary of conflict with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that he was “doing everything I can in order to avoid an unnecessary war.”

A day and a half later, Israel appeared to be on the brink of just that.

After a botched intelligence mission by undercover commandos left seven Palestinian fighters dead, the militant group Hamas and other armed factions mounted an intense and escalating rocket and mortar barrage across much of southern Israel that continued into Tuesday morning.

With air-raid sirens wailing from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, and after a Palestinian anti-tank missile blew up an Israeli bus, seriously wounding a 19-year-old soldier, Israel retaliated with airstrikes and tank fire that grew steadily more destructive.

Israel hit scores of military posts and weapons caches across Gaza, and also leveled a Hamas television station, radio station and office building, and the group’s military intelligence headquarters. Another target, in a densely populated area, housed both Hamas military and intelligence forces and a kindergarten. It was the heaviest fighting between Israel and Gaza since their war in 2014.

The fighting threatened to scuttle months of multilateral talks aimed at calming the Israel-Gaza border, where protests since March have been met with a lethal Israeli response. Some 170 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more wounded.

The talks, mediated by Egypt, had already produced concrete steps to ease tensions in Gaza, including increased electrical power and the influx of millions of dollars in aid.

So why, some Israelis were asking, with the Israeli government under pressure to ease tensions in Gaza and the talks showing progress, would the government risk it all for what officials described as a fairly routine surveillance mission?

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A funeral on Monday for two of the Gaza militants killed in a fight with Israeli forces Sunday night.CreditMohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

The answer, analysts said, may be that it was so routine. No one expected the Israeli commando squad to be exposed.

“The real assumption is that the operation will not be revealed,” said Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former national security adviser. “It’s not 100 percent, but it can be estimated that 99 percent of these operations are not revealed, and 99 percent is good enough to make a decision assuming that the force will enter, execute and go out without being detected.”

The cost of that tiny risk became evident on Monday and Tuesday. More than 400 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel, and the Israeli military said it had struck more than 100 military targets in Gaza belonging to Hamas, which governs the territory, and to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepted more than 100 projectiles, it said.

The authorities in Gaza said five Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli airstrikes and 15 others wounded. On the Israeli side, one man was killed in Ashkelon — a Palestinian from Hebron, in the West Bank, according to local reports — and at least 16 people were wounded.

Each side repeatedly warned the other to back down, but refused to do so itself. After Israel threatened Monday night to begin leveling Gaza high-rises, and then did, Hamas warned that “millions” of Israelis would soon come under its rocket fire.

Israel’s security cabinet was meeting on Tuesday, and officials said the government was spurning, for the moment, offers by Egypt and the United Nations to try to broker a cease-fire.

“For the moment I think that we need to deal with the situation directly,” said a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emanuel Nachshon. “It’s a security challenge, a security threat to the southern part of the state of Israel. And before discussing the issue with any international organizations, we need to make sure that we can protect our citizens. This is why the priority now is to military action, in order to send across a very clear and strong message.”

To embrace talks prematurely would send the wrong message, Mr. Nachshon suggested. Rather, he said, militants in Gaza needed to understand that they “cannot shoot whenever they feel like it and then stop shooting as if nothing happened.”

Israelis inspect the damage in an apartment in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.CreditGil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Despite Israel’s efforts to degrade their arsenals, Hamas and Islamic Jihad appeared in no danger of running out of ammunition. The Israeli military said it believed the two groups had amassed more than 20,000 rockets and mortars.

Overnight, the Israeli military ordered all residents in the south, including in the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba, to remain in bomb shelters, some of which were opened as far as 25 miles from the Gaza perimeter. Residents were allowed to leave shelters late Tuesday morning but told to stay close to them. Air-raid sirens were heard Monday as far away as Hebron.

The United Nations envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, who has sought a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, wrote on Twitter that both sides needed to step “back from the brink” of war. “Rockets must stop, restraint must be shown by all!” he wrote.

But deep into the night, both sides were still ratcheting up the conflict.

Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the Palestinian territories, warned Gaza residents that Hamas had “crossed a red line,” and said that “Israel will dial up its response.”

In Gaza City, employees of the Hamas television station Al Aqsa were warned to evacuate its offices, and the building was soon destroyed by multiple missile blasts that were captured on video by onlookers. A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, called the station’s destruction an act of “barbaric aggression.”

The Israeli military said the station was a legitimate target. “It contributes to Hamas’ military actions, including by providing operational messaging to militants, directing and explicitly calling for terror activities against Israel, and providing guidance on how to carry out such terror activities,” the military said in a statement.

Soon after, airstrikes demolished the Al Aqsa radio station’s offices and Al Amal Hotel, a Hamas office building.

The fighting began hours after Palestinians and Israelis buried combatants who were killed on Sunday night, after an Israeli intelligence mission inside the Gaza Strip went awry when a team of covert operatives was challenged by Hamas fighters. A gunfight erupted, and the team called in airstrikes to cover their escape.

Israeli soldiers on Monday near the border with Gaza.CreditTsafrir Abayov/Associated Press

Six Hamas fighters, including a commander of forces in the Khan Younis area, and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees, another armed faction, were killed. An Israeli lieutenant colonel in the elite Maglan unit, a commando brigade, was also killed in the clash and was hailed as a national hero at his funeral.

According to a former Israeli official with knowledge of the operation, the mission’s goal was surveillance, not an assassination. Such missions, usually aimed at installing surveillance equipment, are extensively planned and are considered at a low risk of exposure and confrontation.

But they are perilous enough that the prime minister has to approve them personally, Mr. Eiland said.

Israeli officials have not publicly explained the mission or what went wrong with it.

“The aim of the operation was not to abduct or to kill a Hamas operative,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel military spokesman, said Monday night. He said that once the Israeli force met trouble, it “acted swiftly, professionally, was able to defend itself, exfiltrate in a very professional manner, making sure that all soldiers got back to Israel, that none were left behind.”

He added that the operation on Sunday had not been a deliberate provocation but was a routine part of the Israeli military’s efforts to contend with terrorist threats across its borders.

“Just as terrorist organizations don’t stop to plan, and to harbor weapons and try to strike against Israeli civilians, neither do we in our preparations, in our collection efforts, and in our operations that we conduct in order to mitigate the capabilities of the different terror organizations around us,” he said.

Proponents of a cease-fire had warned for months that the military’s best efforts to keep a lid on tensions with Gaza could prove for naught because of the unpredictability of cross-border clashes.

The cease-fire talks had appeared to show meaningful progress in recent days before the turn of events that led to Monday’s fighting.

Smoke rises from the the Al-Aqsa television building in Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike.CreditMohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

With both sides eager to address Gaza’s collapsing economy, electrical shortages and a deepening humanitarian crisis, Israel had agreed to let new shipments of diesel fuel be delivered to Gaza’s power plant, sharply increasing the availability of electrical power for residents of the beleaguered coastal enclave and allowing sewage treatment plants to resume operation.

Then, last week, Israel allowed a donation of $15 million in cash from Qatar to be driven into Gaza, where Hamas distributed it as back pay to thousands of its civil servants who have received only a fraction of their salaries for months.

On both sides of the Gaza border, civilians caught up in the fighting said they felt terrorized by it.

Moatasem al-Aloul, a driver from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, said he was stuck in traffic when he suddenly saw people running away from the rocket launches, as explosions crackled overhead.

“The bombing is everywhere,” he said.

By nightfall, during a lull in the fighting, the streets in parts of Gaza City were almost empty, with many residents staying indoors. Few cars were on the road, and the loudest sound was that of Israeli drones hovering overhead.

In Kibbutz Alumim, less than two miles from the Gaza border, Sara Mash, 32, a secretary, said Monday night that her three children and husband had been in their safe room — their children’s bedroom — since 4:30 p.m., when they first heard an explosion and then an air-raid siren.

“We’ve had times like this, but you could at least step out of the safe room and breathe,” she said by phone. “This is a situation where we could not, because every second there was a boom, nonstop — and you have no idea what is going on outside: Is it our side or theirs?”

Then she suddenly shouted, “Red alert, red alert — pick him up!” and ended the call.

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