Israel Is in No Rush to Crush Hamas Government

IDF fears that, without Hamas, Gaza could descend into a Somalia-like situation, in which dozens of gangs or clans would take over various parts of the strip.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, in Cairo on Wednesday with Arab League General Secretary Nabil al-Arabi.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, in Cairo on Wednesday with Arab League General Secretary Nabil al-Arabi.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The next 48 hours in the Gaza Strip will likely bring more of the same: Israeli air strikes, murmurs about a limited Israel Defense Forces ground operation and continued rocket fire from the Strip to central and southern Israel. But there is also a slim chance of reaching a cease–fire agreement.

Contacts aimed at achieving this are ongoing on two different fronts: one Egyptian, and the other Qatari-Turkish. The Palestinian Authority is maneuvering on both channels. The United States, surprisingly, in light of Israel’s wishes, seems to be flirting with getting involved on the second front. This makes the Qatari-Turkish option more attractive to Hamas, as not only does it turn a cold shoulder to Egypt which recently tried to force an agreement on the organization, but it also creates a roundabout channel to the Americans.

In the meantime, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited Cairo. Egypt and the PA are discussing sending 300 Palestinian security personnel to the Rafah border crossing. Opening the crossing is Hamas’ most important demand, but Cairo is setting a high price: Restoring the PA presence in the Gaza Strip for the first time in seven years.

The second key issue is the salaries of 43,000 Hamas government officials in the Gaza Strip. Qatar has expressed interest in helping to supply the necessary funds, but Egypt isn’t thrilled about the idea. In the eyes of the Egyptian generals, Qatar is an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider to be the most dangerous movement in the Arab world. Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and his advisors speak about Qatar with as much contempt as they do about Hamas. Therefore, they would rather have the funding for Hamas’ personnel come from a different source in the Gulf, namely the United Arab Emirates. These two main demands of Hamas have nothing to do with Israel.

But another demand is indeed directed at Israel: Releasing the Hamas operatives arrested over the last month in the West Bank, particularly those previously freed in the Gilad Shalit deal. Israel has told Egypt that this is not on the table, because it involves affairs in the West Bank, which Israel is only willing to discuss with the Palestinian Authority. Israel has yet to respond to another interesting proposal, which seems to be coming from Hamas: A 10-year cease-fire. In the Israeli defense establishment, however, there are those discussing the need to provide some hope for the Gazans. If the crisis that prompted Hamas to escalate the violence was primarily an economic one, then it’s possible to achieve a cease-fire based on some kind of economic incentive for Gaza.

Although Hamas has fired over 1,000 rockets at Israel in little over a week, the IDF fears an even worse scenario: A Somalia-like situation in which dozens of gangs or clans would take over various parts of Gaza. Neither the prime minister, the defense minister, nor the IDF chief of staff are calling for crushing the Hamas government in Gaza, meaning its political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, is not a legitimate Israeli target. Mohammed Deif, head of Hamas’ military wing, most certainly is.

On Wednesday evening, four Palestinian children were killed on a Gaza beach, and many civilians were injured, the result of an erroneous air strike. Foreign press on the scene provided first aid to the injured, and pictures of the incident made it to various international news outlets. The Israeli media, which labeled the incident a “failure that could halt the operation,” is apparently ignoring the fact that roughly half of the Palestinian casualties thus far have been civilians, and that one attack a few days ago killed 21 members of the same family. The IDF’s initial investigation of the incident is checking two possibilities: an intelligence failure in identifying armed combatants, or a mistake in the attack itself. Still, it seems almost impossible to avoid a high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, and the numbers will get even higher if the IDF launches a ground operation in the crowded urban area.

Wednesday saw a slight reduction in the number of Israeli air strikes, as well as the number of rockets fired at Israel. The IDF continues to call on tens of thousands of Gaza residents living close to the border to evacuate their homes. Response to the call has been only partial, but after the evacuations, the IDF attacked a few rocket–launching sites in neighborhoods that were more densely populated before the attacks began. It’s likely that such moves will continue, as the IDF makes preparations while waiting for the leaders to decide about a possible limited ground operation targeting the dangerous tunnels underneath the borders. The IDF’s main concern is that Hamas will attempt to send armed combatants underneath the border to attack an Israeli town or army base. A similar plan was apparently thwarted earlier in the week near Kerem Shalom, close to the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border, a day before the operation began.

The security cabinet on Wednesday approved a request from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, to call up another 8,000 reservists, in addition to the 48,000 that have already been called up. It seems, however, that the additional reservists won’t be sent to conquer Gaza, notwithstanding the wishes of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. They will merely be replacing regular soldiers in different sectors who can prepare for any possible escalation in the south. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said numerous times this week that the IDF will make proper use of the reservists, and will not allow them to “sit on their asses” exposed to rocket fire, during the long wait until a possible ground operation. In the meantime, the reservistswill not be sent to Gaza. The regular forces, bored as they are, will continue to wait for a decision.

On the sidelines, Hamas continues to attack Israel on the cyber front as well, primarily through ridiculous attempts at generating panic by sending poorly written text messages to tens of thousands of Israeli citizens. The ability to infiltrate the Israeli network attests to a certain amount of technological sophistication, but have been generally been viewed as comic relief.

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