Escalation on Two Fronts |

Israel Hoping to Settle Current Round of Violence With One Swift Attack

The deadly exchange on Tuesday was set off by the killings on Friday of Palestinians whom IDF says were out to plant bombs on border; there’s a chance Hamas will try to use the tools available to it to prevent further incidents over the next few days.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

From the standpoint of the average Israeli news consumer, the escalation along the Gaza Strip border began at noon on Tuesday, when a Palestinian sniper killed a civilian employee of the Israel Defense Forces near Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

But in fact, it seems the current round of violence began last Friday, with a series of incidents in which IDF forces shot at Palestinians approaching the border, killing one and wounding four. Two days later, another Palestinian was wounded by IDF fire along the Gaza border. The army said all these incidents involved Palestinian attempts to plant bombs near the border fence under the cover of civilian demonstrations.

Gaza’s Hamas-run government usually maintains a large police force in the area whose sole purpose is to prevent Palestinians from coming too near the Israeli border and to thwart rocket launches from the Strip. This time, however, it permitted the demonstrations, apparently out of a desire to allow Gaza residents to let off steam in light of the worsening situation in the Strip.

Egypt’s role

The decision by the generals now running Egypt to shut down the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza seriously disrupted daily life in the Strip. With the smuggling of fuel from Egypt halted, fuel prices have doubled, forcing Gaza’s government to institute electricity rationing. As a result, residents have suffered planned blackouts that last for about half of every day for many weeks now.

It’s important to Hamas to demonstrate its sovereignty over the Strip, and it organized impressively to deal with the damage caused by the enormous storm two weeks ago, using both cars and boats to rescue people trapped in flooded houses. But the worsening conditions in Gaza have sparked anger, and some of this anger has been released – with Hamas’ consent, if not its encouragement – in demonstrations along the Israeli border. The Palestinians’ dead and wounded over the weekend spurred them to settle accounts on Tuesday via the sniper attack on the border. But as usual in this region, that merely opened a new account: Israel responded with air strikes that killed two Palestinians, one of them a 3-year-old girl.

The group that claimed responsibility for killing the Israeli was the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza organization that has for years maintained a complicated relationship with Hamas, but also has an eye for the even more extremist ideology of Al-Qaida, and is currently fragmented among several subsidiary organizations. Hamas may have turned a blind eye to the sniper attack, or even consented to it. Either way, it’s important to Israel to stress Hamas’ responsibility as Gaza’s ruling party. That’s why the prime and defense ministers accused Hamas of direct responsibility for the attack, and also why the reprisal attacks were directed against Hamas targets.

Israel would like the current round of violence to end with Tuesday’s air strikes, and that’s the message it has sent to Hamas, via Egypt. Cairo has also issued its own threats against the Gaza leadership. Under this dual pressure, there’s a reasonable chance that Hamas will try to use the tools available to it to prevent further incidents over the next few days.

Rightist Knesset members almost automatically issued statements linking the attack on the Gaza border to the wave of terror in the West Bank. But it’s doubtful the connection is as close as they claim.

Hamas views Gaza and the West Bank as two separate theaters. In Gaza, it’s generally interested in maintaining quiet, but allows limited friction with the IDF whenever it deems this necessary. In the West Bank, which is ruled by its rival, the Palestinian Authority, it operates terrorist cells by remote control from Gaza (though so far with limited success) in the hopes of causing Israeli casualties and creating complications for the PA. Hamas’ efforts are on top of what is happening in the West Bank in any case: a growing wave of attacks, some of them fatal, most of which are local initiatives by individuals or small groups that aren’t affiliated with any terrorist organization.

Israel has no grounds for complaint against the PA leadership over what is happening in Gaza. In the West Bank, by contrast, it’s possible to demand that the PA step up security coordination with Israel in an effort to foil attacks, and also that it tone down the anti-Israel incitement in the schools and media.

Kerry in the wings

All of this violence, of course, is happening against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and the Americans’ stated goal of achieving progress within a short time. According to the latest leaks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wants to present both sides with a framework agreement, whose acceptance would be presented as a significant breakthrough in the negotiations. In practice, for lack of other options, the Americans might settle for a vague, watered-down document plus an extension of the deadline for talks on a final-status agreement.

This seems unlikely to bring peace to our region within the next few months, as Kerry hopes. But it might at least postpone the outbreak of the next major round of violence between the parties.

Israeli military jeeps at scene of a shooting incident near Gaza borderCredit: Reuters

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