A cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip was largely upheld on Sunday, aside from a brief exchange of fire in the evening, and routine returned hours after the two sides agreed to end a five-day escalation that killed at least 33 people in Gaza and two in Israel.
But across the region, the question was when, rather than if, the cease-fire would break. The escalation, at least the 11th involving Gaza since 2006, came just nine months after the previous days-long battle between Israel and militias in the coastal enclave.
The Israeli military said that a single Palestinian rocket was fired into an open area near Gaza on Sunday evening, causing no damage but reminding residents of the fragility of the truce.
The regional dynamics also remain unstable: Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza, conducted jointly with Egypt, remains in place, as does its 56-year occupation of the West Bank, both of which fuel Palestinian anger and violence. Hard-line Palestinian militias that officially call for Israel’s destruction still dominate Gaza and maintain a strong presence in the West Bank — bolstering the Israeli rationale for exerting control over both territories.
What was the state of the cease-fire on Sunday?
Israel allowed goods, food and people to re-enter Gaza on Sunday morning and permitted thousands of Gazan residents to return to Israel for work on construction sites and farms, after the authorities blocked entry and exit during the escalation last week.
Yet a wider blockade remained in place: Since Hamas captured Gaza in 2007, Israel has barred certain imports to the enclave, particularly electronic and computing equipment, fearing that militants might repurpose them as weapons. Israel has also limited most outward travel from Gaza.
In southern Israel, life began to return to normal on Sunday, with schools and roads reopened and bomb shelters having emptied out once the threat of widespread Palestinian rocket fire subsided. But the rocket fire on Sunday evening sent some residents running for cover once again.
In response, Israel said it briefly shelled a Palestinian watchtower. No injuries were reported and Palestinian militant leaders said the rocket was fired in error.
Palestinians once again began a familiar rebuilding operation in Gaza: Officials there said that Israeli airstrikes last week had destroyed or irreparably damaged 100 houses and apartments, and caused less severe damage to more than 900 others.
Why might the truce hold?
For now, Palestinian Islamic Jihad — the Iran-backed militia that led the fight with Israel — seems thwarted. Israeli airstrikes killed several of the group’s top commanders, as well as several civilians, and the Israeli military said it had destroyed some of its rocket launchers and rocket arsenal.
Hamas, the larger and better-armed militia that governs the Gaza Strip, did not publicly involve itself in the fighting. Although Hamas has helped stir recent violence in the West Bank and Lebanon, its leaders have recently shown that they do not want to involve their stronghold in Gaza in those campaigns.
Hamas officially seeks Israel’s destruction and, like Islamic Jihad, is regarded as a terrorist organization by countries including Israel, Japan and the United States. But it also runs Gaza and needs to alleviate an economy that is crippled in large part by years of Israeli restrictions on the territory.
Conscious of that balancing act, Israel has issued roughly 20,000 work permits to Gazan laborers over the past two years — providing a crucial source of money and employment to a territory where nearly half of eligible workers are jobless. Experts argue that Hamas does not want to jeopardize that arrangement, at least for now.
Why might the cease-fire collapse?
Islamic Jihad has not been dealt anything close to a fatal blow. Israeli officials estimate that the group still has about 10,000 operatives and several thousand rockets. And while several of the group’s leaders were killed last week, it lost a similar number of commanders during the previous escalation last August — and then took less than a year to recover.
Because Islamic Jihad does not govern Gaza, its leaders do not have to worry about maintaining the enclave’s economy. That leaves the group freer to fire rockets in response to activity by Israeli security forces in the West Bank and Israel. Israel’s arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank was one catalyst for the battle last August, and the escalation last week was partly prompted by the death of a second Islamic Jihad leader who was on hunger strike in an Israeli prison.
Hamas, like Islamic Jihad, is considered a terrorist group by countries including Israel and the United States. Hamas’s fighters could also start firing rockets again if the group feels that Israeli actions cross too many perceived red lines.
The group has threatened to respond to deadly Israeli military operations in Palestinian cities in the West Bank; far-right Israeli marches through Arab areas of Jerusalem; and Israeli police raids on the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, a site that is also sacred to Jews, who call it Temple Mount.
Recently, Hamas gunmen killed several Israeli civilians in the West Bank and were accused of firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon. If such attacks rise, Israeli leaders will likely face pressure from hard-liners in their own government to strike Hamas’s nerve center in Gaza, raising the risk of retaliatory rocket fire.
What could break the cycle?
Without a full resolution to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, analysts do not foresee any end to the repetitive violence in Gaza.
Although small economic concessions from Israel have helped delay recent episodes of violence and lessen their intensity, they have not removed the major causes of Palestinian anger: Israel’s wider economic restrictions on Gaza, its two-tier legal system in the West Bank — and, for the extremist Palestinians who control Gaza, Israel’s very existence in the first place.
Moderates on both sides still hope to one day create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but neither currently has the ability to restart meaningful peace talks. Israel’s far-right leaders reject the idea of Palestinian independence, and the country’s small peace camp has little chance of gaining power. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank in coordination with Israel, was forced out of Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel.
A cartoon published on Sunday in a leading Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, summarized the mood.
“We’ve got to wrap up this operation in Gaza,” the Israeli army chief, Herzi Halevi, was depicted as telling a cartoon version of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Because soon we’ve got the next operation in Gaza.”
Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.