Israel Sends 'Soft' Message to Hamas via the Army

The murder of the Arab boy from Shuafat and the ongoing duel with Hamas have brought the feud to a new level. But Israel is offering Hamas an exit point before engaging in a military campaign in the Strip.

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Israeli soldiers searching for the three kidnapped teenagers in a West Bank village near Nablus, June 20, 2014.
Israeli soldiers searching for the three kidnapped teenagers in a West Bank village near Nablus, June 20, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the week after the bodies of the kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found, the focus of friction between Israel and the Palestinians shifted to East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The army and the Shin Bet are continuing their manhunt for the suspected kidnappers, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, Hamas members from Hebron. However, the murder of the Arab boy from Shuafat and the on-going duel between Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes have brought the confrontation to new levels.

Despite the reservations of a large number of cabinet members with regards to expanding military operations, the situation is still fragile. A continuation of riots in Jerusalem or a large number of casualties from a Hamas rocket could lead to an escalation to a more intense level of fighting. One possibility would be the renewal of targeted assassinations in the Gaza Strip. Approval of such tactics would surely result in a confrontation with Hamas which would include firing rockets into the Tel Aviv area.

In the three weeks since the kidnapping there has been a constant dribble of rockets and mortar rounds launched from the Strip into the Negev area. Israel has responded cautiously, usually firing back at empty areas, avoiding targeting key Hamas military installations. Israeli analysts believe that Hamas is not interested in an escalation. Nevertheless, it has started playing on two levels. Some of its squads were behind a few mortar attacks, and it apparently allowed other organizations to fire rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon.

Israel’s cabinet held a string of four nightly sessions, with undisclosed decisions taken. The defense establishment is hesitant about enlarging the scope of operations, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is maneuvering between this position and increasing pressure to carry out what the right wing terms "an appropriate Zionist response" to the kidnapping. The renewal of targeted assassinations may serve as a solution, despite the risks associated with such a policy.

A senior defense official delivered an unusual message to Hamas on Thursday that “quiet will be met with quiet. Israel is not interested in escalation, and if Hamas holds its fire we will desist from further actions.” He emphasized the delicate timing, with the onset of the month of Ramadan in Gaza and of the school break in Israel. His words came only hours after a rocket slammed into a house in Sderot. It seems as though Israel is offering Hamas a final exit point before launching an operation in Gaza.

Not surprisingly, Israel prefers that this "soft" message be delivered by the army rather than by senior cabinet members such as the prime minister, the defense minister or the foreign minister. The message did not refer to a timetable, but one can surmise that Israel is pausing for a day or two. If the rocket fire continues, Netanyahu will have the legitimacy at home and even with the international community to take some action. If Egyptian pressure assists in bringing about a halt to the rockets, it will be possible to calm the situation.

Israel’s fury at the murder of the teenagers is finding other outlets. Some are official, such as the renewed demolition of houses belonging to terrorists or their families in the Palestinian territories. This will soon proceed beyond the demolition of the house of the murderer of police officer Baruch Mizrahi. Some actions are unofficial, as when the army broke into the homes of the families of the two suspected kidnappers last Monday. Supposedly a search took place, but it seemed more like an act of deliberate destruction, leaving nothing there intact. Then there is the lust for revenge, finding expression in the wild and violent chasing of Arabs in downtown Jerusalem, in a despicable and racist Facebook campaign and, regretfully, probably in the murder of the boy from Shuafat.

Locating the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers deprived Hamas of any potential gains to be made from the kidnapping, such as an exchange of prisoners or even of bodies. Despite the initial bungling by the security services and the police call center, the noose around the kidnappers started closing immediately after the abduction.

The two are on the run and have apparently not contacted anyone. There is no proof that they acted on behalf of Hamas. Despite some support in the territories, many Palestinians were dismayed by the killing of unarmed youths, which derailed the reconciliation process between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Muhammed Abu Khdeir's murder has changed the picture somewhat, since now the Palestinians have their own innocent victim, one that appears to be a political murder perpetrated by Jews. Palestinian leaders rushed to exploit the incident internationally, as did Israel. They demand a sharp condemnation by Israel and an arrest of the perpetrators.

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