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Q&A: Israeli Attack on Gaza November 2012

What was operation Pillar of Defense?


Israeli attack on Gaza in November 2012, coded as Operation Pillar of Defense, was a week-long offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, ruled by a Hamas-led Islamist government. The violence ended on November 21, with a US-Egyptian brokered ceasefire agreement. Around 170 Palestinians were killed in the violence, compared to six Israelis.

1. What Triggered the Violence?

Israel and Hamas are in a permanent state of low-intensity war. Palestinian militants fire rockets into southern Israel, while Israeli Defense Force (IDF) carries targeted assassinations and bombardment of military infrastructure.

Violence escalated with the November 14 assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, Hamas’ senior military commander, allegedly in response to a surge in rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel in preceding weeks.

2. What Was Israel Trying to Achieve?

Unlike its ground invasion of Gaza in 2009, the IDF had a limited goal of forcing Hamas to rein in smaller militant groups responsible for the rocket fire through bombardment and missile strikes. The objective was to weaken Hamas’s military capacity by destroying rocket launch sites and weapons caches.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also sending a message to the world that Israel’s room for military maneuver remained unconstrained by the negative political developments in the region: i.e., coming to power of governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya sympathetic to Hamas, Israel’s frosty relations with Turkey, and announcement of financial support for Gaza by Qatar, a super-wealthy and influential Gulf Arab Emirate.

3. What Were Hamas’ Objectives?

Hamas leaders threatened Israel with opening the “gates of hell” but their goals were much less dramatic. Hamas and militant groups like Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees unleashed more than 1400 rockets at Israeli urban areas, hoping to ram it home that a ground invasion carried a higher price tag than in 2009. Long-range missiles were fired at Tel Aviv, the first time since the 1991 Gulf War.

Hamas arguably believed that anything short of its destruction amounted to a political victory, while quietly hoping to avoid a larger confrontation that would deplet its rocket arsenal and cause heavy civilian casualties in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

4. What Was the Outcome?

Both sides declared victory. Israeli government claimed to have destroyed most of Hamas’ long-range missiles. Hamas claimed to have fought back an Israeli aggression, hailing the rocket fire at Tel Aviv as a game changer in the military balance.

In truth, the conflict made little difference to the status quo. Hamas’ rocket arsenal looks more menacing compared to 2009, but far from an effective deterrent to future Israeli attacks. At the same time, the IDF airstrikes have not removed the rocket threat to Israeli towns, something that could only be achieved through a prolonged and bloody battle on the ground.

5. Ceasefire Deal: Can It Hold?

The US-Egyptian brokered ceasefire agreement produced a fragile truce that is unlikely to hold for long. At best, the agreement allows both sides to prepare for the next round of confrontation. The agreement bounds Israel to end all hostilities on Gaza, including assassinations and incursions, provided that Palestinian factions in Gaza stop rocket and border attacks.

But there was no real progress on the main sticking point: Israel’s land and naval blockade of Gaza, which has stifled the local economy, and which Israelis claim is necessary to contain the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants. The agreement stipulates talks on the opening of crossings into Gaza to allow free movement of people and goods, but with no specific guarantees from the Israeli side that this option was actually on the table.

With no solution for the underlying political roots of the conflict, the two sides will have little incentive to abide by the terms of the truce beyond a limited period of time (see more in this analysis by BBC).

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