Analysis

As Israel-Hamas Cease-fire Barely Holds, Next Test Fast Approaches

Israel’s south struggles to return to routine while security officials brace for serious clashes during weekend protests

A Palestinian girl cleans the face of her brother outside their destroyed house after an Israeli missile targeted a nearby Hamas site, in Gaza City March 26, 2019.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

The unofficial cease-fire brokered by Egyptian mediators between Israel and Gaza is faltering. Since Tuesday evening, three rockets were launched from the Strip into the northern and western Negev desert, with two intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The Israeli military responded with limited aerial attacks early Wednesday morning in Rafah and Khan Yunis. 

The first rocket was fired a short time after the military announced a return to norm in the Gaza border communities. The Israel Defense Forces maintained high alert, especially over the possibility of large protests planned by Hamas for the one-year anniversary of the March of Return on Saturday. The military is concerned the protests will turn into a more violent confrontation than normal. 

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>> Live updates: Despite reports of cease-fire, Israel and Gaza continue to exchange limited blows

Israeli soldiers work on their tanks at a gathering area near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

The latest escalation now looks as if it will end the same way its antecedents did over the past year. The scenario repeats itself almost exactly: The Palestinians launch rockets, Israel condemns the aggression and declares that it will respond harshly, Hamas runs to Egyptian intelligence officers to request a cease-fire, the Palestinian factions in Gaza announce that a cease-fire has been reached (that happened Monday night at 10 P.M.), Israel says it’s unaware of any such agreement - but in the end, somehow, the shooting dissipates, as if of its own accord. This of course takes place gradually and depends also on the will of "recalcitrant" Palestinian organizations. 

This time, it initially seemed as if things were going to develop a little differently. Monday’s pre-dawn rocket strike on central Israel hit much farther north than previous launches. Unusually, the rocket also landed directly on a house and wounded seven members of one family. The timing was inconvenient as well – about two weeks before the Knesset election, and while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the midst of a diplomatic trip to the United States.

In response, Israel used very harsh rhetoric, which seemed like it would be backed by harsher moves on the ground. Netanyahu cut short his trip to Washington (and canceled his speech to the thousands attending the annual AIPAC conference). The Israel Defense Forces called up reservists and sent the Gaza Division and two brigades of regular troops to the Negev to conduct exercises.

Palestinians flee from tear gas during a protest by the barbed-wire fence with Israel east of Gaza City on March 22, 2019.
AFP

But in practice, not much changed. The air force struck dozens of Hamas targets, but was very careful to bomb selectively. The fact that there were no reports of deaths from Gaza shows the care that was taken.

As usual, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit disseminated pictures of destroyed buildings, while a “senior government official” on the prime minister’s plane, whose identity the public will have no trouble guessing, told the journalists who were returning to Israel with him that “Hamas has suffered the heaviest blows since Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. This is the same claim made after every such exchange of fire.

Nevertheless, the unofficial cease-fire seems to have taken hold since then, despite Netanyahu’s dramatic return home.

Here a word of caution is needed. On two occasions in the past, it was Israel that broke the cease-fire and launched major military operations in Gaza – Operation Cast Lead in 2008 (when it attacked a Hamas police parade) and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 (when it assassinated Ahmed Jabari, then head of Hamas’ military wing).

Immediately after returning to Israel, Netanyahu held consultations with senior defense officials. If he indeed decided to stop the fighting, he has taken a political risk. His rivals have already begun attacking him over his government’s lack of action against Hamas terror.

On the other hand, the prime minister hasn’t concealed his reservations about a major operation in Gaza over the past few months. He knows such an operation could involve sending in ground forces and suffering casualties on the eve of the election.

The tip of the iceberg of Netanyahu’s dilemma can be seen in his hostile exchange with journalists before he took off for Israel. The reporters insisted on asking him about the situation on the Gaza border – a question that clearly concerns much of the public after a night that hundreds of thousands of people down south spent in shelters.

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Netanyahu complained about insufficient coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that America recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights (an issue that actually received quite a lot of attention) and warned the journalists that “history will settle accounts with you.”

To change the subject, and perhaps in an outburst of frustration, the Likud campaign attacked Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz. The new spin by Netanyahu and his people, which seems to come from the school of Trump, holds that Gantz’s poor television interviews on Monday cast doubts on the former chief of staff’s sanity.

The electoral race is surprisingly close. Consequently, the electoral campaigns are become lower and cruder, and we probably haven’t reached the bottom of the barrel yet. Even after the video clip of a military cemetery, Netanyahu’s public demand that Gantz reveal what was on his hacked phone and the repulsive mockery of journalist Amnon Abramovich, new nadirs await.

‘Million-Man March’ on Friday

An Israeli soldier stands in an open area near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 26, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

What does Israel want to achieve now, assuming the fighting doesn’t resume? Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Tuesday morning that the goal is to return to the understandings that ended Operation Protective Edge. That is supposed to include an end to both the weekly demonstrations along the border fence, which are accompanied by considerable violence, and the nighttime demonstrations in between them, during which Hamas members throw explosives at soldiers and sabotage the fence.

Israel is especially worried about the demonstration planned for this Friday, when Hamas will mark the one-year anniversary of its Marches of Return. It has dubbed this one “The Million-Man March.” A million Gazans won’t show up. But it’s enough to have tens of thousands, together with suitable encouragement from Hamas, to create a large, violent confrontation along the fence.

Hamas has its own considerations, which aren’t fully clear. The newspaper that serves as the prime minister’s house organ claimed on Tuesday that the rockets were launched – yes, really – “on Iran’s orders in an effort to oust Netanyahu.” A person described as a “senior Hamas official” told the paper that the rockets were fired “behind the backs of Hamas’ leadership in Gaza, in coordination with Iran and Islamic Jihad.” This is an interesting version of events that obviously serves the Likud campaign’s claim that Iran is trying to promote Gantz’s candidacy (on one hand, while hacking his cell phone with the other).

Another possibility is that Hamas has identified an opportunity here that isn’t likely to recur. Almost 300 Gazans have been killed by IDF fire over the last year in clashes and demonstrations along the fence.

The organization desperately needs an achievement that will justify this price, given Gaza’s economic crisis, its disintegrating infrastructure and the growing domestic protests against Hamas.

>> Read more: Hamas rocket rains on Netanyahu’s victory parade with Trump 

Hamas also understands that after the Israeli election, whatever government is formed will enjoy greater public legitimacy for a large-scale military operation if the public feels all other options have been exhausted.

That’s why Hamas is putting on the pressure now, including with these unusual launches of long-range rockets.

Israel will have to make a decision on its Gazan dilemma soon.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Armored Brigade and the Golani Brigade are reinforcing troops at Tze’elim in the Negev. On Tuesday, a decision was made to reinforce them with another brigade and an artillery battalion, and additional reservists were called up on top of the thousands who received emergency call-up orders on Monday.

All this is preparation for a possible operation in Gaza as well as a threatening message to Hamas. But the Palestinians also know that occupying Gaza would require much more than two brigades.

The IDF is evidently keeping its options open. The high alert will continue through the run-up to Friday’s demonstration.

But if no way is found to ease the friction along the border, it’s very possible that another escalation will develop, in which Hamas will fire rockets in response to casualties in clashes along the fence. We’ve already seen this Gazan film many, many times over the last year.