An unusually timed and likely undesired killing of a Hamas commander has caused an Israel-Gaza conflict that is escalating to levels not seen since 2014 because of the political need to save face, experts say.
On Sunday, Israel killed a Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip during a botched undercover operation, causing an escalation of rocket fire from both Gaza and Israel. Six other Palestinian militants and an Israeli colonel were also killed in Israel’s operation.
Hamas has since fired at least 300 rockets into Israel, one of which hit a bus, while Israel has responded with its own fire, striking Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV station and killing three Palestinian gunmen.
The timing of the conflict is unusual, given ceasefire talks between Gaza and Israel were reportedly progressing, leaving experts to conclude that Israel botched the operation and the conflict was unintentional.
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“This operation was more meant for intelligence gathering, locating people who might be held in the Gaza Strip, not to assassinate, especially given the recent efforts to reach a ceasefire,” said Costanza Musu, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, citing international analysis for her reasoning.
The Hamas commander that was killed had a “mid-range” level of command, and the Israeli military has denied it was an assassination attempt. Musu says it is unlikely there would be authorization to assassinate him, given his level of command.
Israel and Gaza were reportedly making progress in their ceasefire talks in recent weeks, but Musu says the ceasefire was being negotiated for “pragmatic” reasons, and the two sides still have fundamentally different objectives that make lasting peace difficult. This is why the rapid escalation in the midst of these talks is somewhat understandable, although it is a “big setback” for the ceasefire, Musu said.
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Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, says it is “farcical” that Israel would be engaged in such a high-risk activity while the country was working toward a ceasefire with Gaza.
“It was very strange timing. You would have thought (Israel) would have calmed down risky actions like that when it seems the ceasefire is coming along,” Brynen said.
But Musu explains that a lot of these types of intelligence operations happen, the only difference is that they’re not botched and they’re not reported so the public doesn’t know when they occur.
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Now that the public does know about this operation — and it led to a death that, by all accounts, wasn’t intentional — both sides are trying to save face, and the operation has been politicized.
“Hamas wants to make a point: ‘You can’t do this, we’ll fire back.’ And Israel wants to make the point: ‘You can’t fire rockets at us,'” Brynen said. “At the moment, both sides are trying to cow the other to back down.”
Brynen says there is currently a political climate in Israel that causes politicians to talk tough, as public opinion is geared against Hamas — and the same in Gaza towards Israel — meaning politicians will have to “ride it out for a little.”
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Although the domestic politics will push toward escalation, strategic calculations will push towards de-escalation, he said.
That is because a large effort to go into Gaza is very strongly opposed by the military, Musu said, due to the risk of high civilian casualties in the high-density area. Musu also points out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently gave a talk in Paris where he said he opposed invading Gaza.
Brynen says things could go either way with the escalation, especially if the rockets hit civilians. So far he has been “impressed” with the amount of firepower Hamas has shown, which he says is greater than in the past.
“There’s always the risk of things getting much worse before they get better,” he said.