Hamas Upping Violence Because It Believes Netanyahu Doesn’t Want All-out War

Are we witnessing the beginning of a third Palestinian intifada? It's too soon to tell, but the spiral of revenge attacks is extremely dangerous.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli forces in East Jerusalem, July 4, 2014.
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli forces in East Jerusalem, July 4, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A U.S. peace initiative that provides hope and fizzles out, murders of Israelis by Palestinians, the death of a Palestinian boy under questionable circumstances, mass protests in both the territories and Israel proper, Arab Israelis donning masks and stoning their Jewish neighbors’ cars, a massive mobilization by the police – all this reminds us of the autumn of 2000 when the second intifada broke out.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a third intifada, following the false alarms of 2011 and 2012? It’s too early to tell – history rarely repeats the same way.

Much has changed since 2000. Hamas didn’t rule Gaza then, nor did it possess thousands of rockets, some that can hit Tel Aviv. Yasir Arafat ruled back then, maneuvering between peace talks and terror attacks, unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has sincerely rejected terror.

The big difference lies in the cost. Five years of intifada took a heavy toll on both sides. Despite the recent bloodshed and lack of diplomatic progress, the memory of those days is deeply etched in the political fabric. In earlier confrontations, this memory prevented the eruption of a full-scale revolt. It’s unclear whether this will be the same now.

Last week it seemed that a renewed cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was imminent. On Thursday, Israel announced that it was giving Hamas a chance — that “quiet will be met with quiet.” Egypt’s mediation efforts picked up on Friday. The Israel Air Force launched a few attacks, but these were limited and caused no casualties.

Rocket fire from Gaza increased after the kidnapping of the three teens on June 12, reaching its peak last week. Something deeper might be developing, with a gradual collapse of understandings reached after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012. The following 18 months were the quietest period in a decade on the Gaza border.

The relative quiet improved people’s sense of security and gave the region an economic boost. The cease-fire had two anchors; one was Israeli deterrence, based on the destruction during the last operation, which eroded some of Hamas’ control in the Strip.

Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt a year ago brought to power generals who view Hamas as an arm of the hated Muslim Brotherhood. The new rulers cooperate with Israel behind the scenes. Hamas lost its crutch when the Muslim Brotherhood government was toppled, and Hamas got into trouble with its Iranian patron by publicly condemning the massacre of Sunnis by Syrian President Bahar Assad.

Gaza thus suffocated between Egypt and Israel, but Hamas was reluctant to act against Israel. Something changed in this equation last week, when Hamas squads lobbed mortar shells at Israeli border communities, while smaller groups fired rockets.

These moves may be related to Hamas’ strategic woes. The new regime in Egypt cut off almost all tunnel smuggling to Gaza and severely restricted traffic through the Rafah crossing. Hamas reluctantly had to sign a reconciliation deal with the Palestinian Authority, but any hopes that this would provide economic relief have been dashed so far.

Abbas did not receive the expected financial support for Gaza from Qatar, and tens of thousands of Hamas government employees in the Strip did not receive their salaries. Fuel shortages are growing and power cuts last 12 hours a day. Hamas people have broken dozens of ATM machines in the last two weeks so that Fatah employees who still get paid through Ramallah cannot withdraw cash.

This, more than hostility toward Israel, may explain the continued firing. Hamas hopes that in exchange for holding its fire it will obtain something from the Egyptians or the PA, such as the payment of salaries or an easing of the crossing situation into Egypt.

The kidnapping seems to have been a local initiative by Hamas activists. But the leadership in Gaza hoped to exploit it and negotiate the release of prisoners in exchange for the abducted teens or their bodies, proving again the advantages of the armed struggle.

They were deprived of this when the bodies were found, but they still hope to chalk up an achievement. Hamas believes that the Netanyahu government is reluctant to embark on a confrontation in Gaza and that the group can continue to apply pressure. It made that mistake in the week preceding Pillar of Defense. This dealt it a serious blow and caused the death of its military commander.

The events in East Jerusalem are also worrisome. The police believe that the Arab teenager killed last week was murdered by Jews simply because he was Palestinian.

The spiral of revenge attacks is very dangerous. A Jewish mob rampaged in Jerusalem and Arab Israelis stoned drivers in central Israel — the most serious demonstrations in years. The police will have to keep a heavy presence in both areas. Luckily there have been no fatalities so far.

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