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Israel and Gaza just saw their worst violence in years. It could get worse.

“It’s entirely possible that it will spiral into a full-blown war,” an expert said.

An Israeli soldier jumps off a tank near the Israel Gaza border, Tuesday, November, 13, 2018. 
An Israeli soldier jumps off a tank near the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. 
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Over the past three days, Israeli and Palestinian militants in Gaza have engaged in the worst fighting since 2014 — and there’s a chance the conflict could turn into a much bigger war.

Tensions started to grow on Sunday when Israel launched a secret commando raid into the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by the militant group Hamas. It’s unclear exactly why Israeli forces entered the area, although some say it was for intelligence-gathering purposes. What is clear, though, is that the mystery mission went awry.

A senior Hamas commander was one of seven Palestinian militants who died in a firefight; an Israeli lieutenant colonel was also killed while another officer was wounded. It’s the first known ground invasion by Israel into Gaza since July 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

On Monday, in response, Hamas launched a missile into Israel that destroyed a military bus and injured a 19-year-old soldier.

Israel retaliated, striking Hamas targets in Gaza, including a weapons storage site, a headquarters for military intelligence, and even a television station.

Between Monday and Tuesday, Hamas launched 400 missiles into Israel, killing one civilian and wounding about 16 others. Nearly 100 of the missiles were intercepted by the country’s anti-missile system, known as the Iron Dome.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, says it hit more than 100 targets. Palestinians reported that five people died and another 15 were wounded.

An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes on al-Rahma building in Gaza City, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. 
An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Monday, November 12, 2018.
AP Photo/Adel Hana

The fighting came as Israel and Hamas seemed to be making progress toward signing an important agreement. According to the deal, Israel would give Gaza economic aid in exchange for curbing the six-month-long “Right of Return” protests on the Israel-Gaza border, where Israeli troops have killed more than 200 Palestinians and injured over 18,000.

However, it looks like both sides agreed to an Egypt-backed ceasefire on Tuesday, possibly ending the fighting for now. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis on Sunday that he’s “doing everything I can in order to avoid an unnecessary war,” and on Tuesday emerged from a six-hour cabinet meeting and opted against an invasion of Gaza.

The problem, though, is both sides have failed to step back from the brink before, Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to Palestinian leadership from 2004 to 2009, told me.

“It’s entirely possible that it will spiral into a full-blown war,” he said, especially if the US and others don’t help solve many of the underlying issues that lead both parties to quarrel in the first place.

Why Israel and Gaza fight

Gaza is a tiny, densely populated strip of land located between Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and Egypt. Approximately 25 miles long and 6 miles wide, it is home to an estimated 1.9 million Palestinians.

In 1967, Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank during the Six-Day War. (Gaza had formerly been under Egyptian control.) From then until 2005, Israeli military authorities controlled Gaza in the same way they control the West Bank today. Some 8,500 Jews also chose to build settlements in Gaza during this time, many believing it to be part of “Eretz Yisrael” (Greater Israel), the land biblically ordained for Jews.

Christina Animashuan/Vox

Those settlements, and the soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who were charged with protecting the Jewish settlers who lived in them, caused serious friction with the majority population of Palestinians in Gaza.

As a result, in 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally decided to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza, evacuate the settlers (forcibly, if necessary), and pull out all Israeli troops.

A short time after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas won political power in Gaza in a 2006 US-backed election and took full control of the Gaza Strip.

This prompted Israel to institute a blockade of the flow of commercial goods into Gaza, on the grounds that Hamas could use those goods to make weapons to be used against Israel. Israel has eased the blockade over time, but the cutoff of basic supplies like fuel still does significant humanitarian harm by restricting access to electricity, food, and medicine.

Hamas and other Gaza-based militants have fired thousands of rockets from the territory at Israeli targets. Israel has launched a number of military operations in Gaza, including an air campaign and ground invasion in late 2008 and early 2009, a major bombing campaign in 2012, and another air/ground assault in 2014.

In the summer of 2014, three Israeli students were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, a Palestinian-controlled territory. Once authorities found the bodies under rocks in an open field, Israeli officials blamed Hamas for the deaths and vowed to seek revenge.

Thus began the last time Hamas and Israel fought a war — and it was a brutal seven-week fight.

Israel started launching airstrikes on Gaza, and Palestinians responded by firing rockets into Israel. Then on July 17, 2014, the Israeli military invaded Gaza, in part to close down tunnels that allowed Hamas to secretly enter Israel and attack the country. Ground fighting led to a spike in Palestinian casualties, which quickly went from a few hundred into the thousands.

The conflict eventually ended in August, with both sides agreeing to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire. Israel said it would relax the blockade on Gaza; Hamas declared that it won the war. More than 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed, while more than 10,000 people — mostly Palestinians — sustained injuries.

That war was bad, and it’s mostly why no one else wants another fight.

There may not be a war this time, but major frictions remain

The conditions that lead to consistent Israel-Gaza skirmishes — like the Israeli blockade, which affects thousands of Palestinians on a daily basis, or Hamas’s control of Gaza — still exist. It’s why there will likely be more small outbreaks of violence that could potentially grow into bigger ones.

One main reason for that is that experts say the decades-long peace process, meant to settle longstanding divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, is basically defunct.

“Even if the ceasefire arrangement holds, it’s only going to last until the next time there’s another botched operation or salvo of rockets,” Elgindy, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, told me.

Former President William Clinton at at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993 with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Former President Bill Clinton at at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993, with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Vince Musi/The White House

The peace process is an American-mediated effort to broker a treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. The goal is a “final status agreement,” which would establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to permanently end attacks on Israeli targets — a formula often called “land for peace.”

President Donald Trump says he may release his administration’s peace plan by the end of the year. It’s unclear if he has the answers that have eluded past Republican and Democratic presidents before him. But the fact that there is no real process in place at the moment means there are fewer restrictions on both parties — mainly Israel, which is by far the more powerful actor — to escalate dangerous situations.

“No one is really talking about the moribund peace process,” Guy Ziv, a Middle East expert at American University, told me. The process wouldn’t involve Hamas, he notes, but added that “any long-term solution involving Gaza would have to be part of the peace process if and when it resumes.”

And it’s a tough moment for Netanyahu, a conservative who came to power most recently in 2009 in part by promising to stop attacks from Hamas and others in Israel. Instead, as Ziv told me, “the number and intensity of attacks has increased in recent years, Hamas is stronger today than it was after Operation Protective Edge, and Israel’s deterrence has taken a big hit.”

That, analysts say, means Netanyahu may have to push even harder against future Hamas strikes to please the more hawkish members of his cabinet — even if his inclination is to avoid a larger battle.

“Things could quickly escalate again and deteriorate into another war, notwithstanding Hamas’s and Netanyahu’s desire to prevent one,” Ziv said.