The firing of a few rockets from the Gaza Strip toward an Israeli border community on Friday does not reflect a basic change from the situation created at the end of the war in late August. For that reason, the Israeli response was limited: One strike against a Hamas training area in the southern Gaza Strip, and Israel’s reiteration that it regards Hamas as responsible for any attack on it from Gaza.
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And yet, the exchanges of fire reflect a potential for escalation. Gaza, almost four months after the war, remains a pressure cooker at boiling point. Miscommunications between the sides, which, to a great extent, is what happened before hostilities broke out last summer, could spark a flare-up that might overshadow the Knesset election campaign.
The Israeli security establishment believes that a relatively small Palestinian faction was responsible for Friday’s rockets, and they say Hamas took steps to rein in rocket-launching militants immediately after the rockets fell. This is what Hamas did for many months before last summer’s conflict began.
From time to time, a single rocket was fired, after which urgent messages were conveyed to Israel that the incident was not acceptable to the Gaza leadership. But in the weeks that preceded the eruption of last July’s war, a gradual change could be seen in Hamas’ attitude. At first, “rogue” factions were doing the firing; then front organizations encouraged by Hamas; and, finally, activists of Hamas itself, before the major outbreak occurred – in the context of Israel action to thwart Palestinian preparations for a large-scale terror attack through a tunnel at Kerem Shalom.
The Egyptian angle
Today, most Israeli security agencies agree that the main reason for last summer’s deterioration can be found in the July 2013 crisis between Hamas and the group of generals who took power in Egypt. Since that time, Cairo has cut the air supply to the Gaza Strip by systematically demolishing the smuggling tunnels from Sinai and closing the Rafah crossing. Along with the Israeli closure, the Gazans found themselves in an ever-tightening siege.
When the closure grew even worse following the failure to implement a reconciliation agreement with Fatah that would yield more money for salaries to the Gaza Strip, the deterioration began that led to war.
The situation now is actually not that different from circumstances in early July. When Hamas was forced to ask for a cease-fire at the end of August, expectations in Gaza were high. There was talk that the closure would be lifted and the Strip rebuilt, and there were even vague promises of future discussions of the possibility of building an airport and seaport in Gaza. Very little has happened since then.
The Gazans have been pledged some $7 billion in economic aid, but only about $100 million has actually reached them. A tsunami swept through the Gaza Strip last summer due to the Israel Defense Forces’ action. Nearly 100,000 homes were damaged and need rebuilding; approximately 20,000 of these were completely destroyed. Tens of thousands of people are still living in tents. Shipments of building materials have begun to arrive, through Israel, but they are being put to use only slowly.
Cairo, for now, refuses to budge. The Rafah crossing remains closed and the demolition of the tunnels has only increased over the past two months. For many weeks now, the Egyptians have not renewed the indirect talks between the parties over a long-term cease-fire.
The message of the Hamas leadership, at a rally marking the 27th anniversary of the organization a week ago, was “rehabilitation or explosion.”
The restraining factor in the equation – which is stronger than it was last July – is connected to the suffering that the Palestinian population in Gaza has already endured: the destruction left by the last round of fighting there is the worst ever. Despite anger at Israel and Egypt, Gazans are not likely to be eager for another round of fighting.
On the other side of the equation is Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister on the way to elections. As usual, there is a gap between his hard-line rhetoric and his actions on the ground. In almost six continuous years as prime minister, Netanyahu embarked twice on military campaigns against Gaza. Both times, it was with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 began when Netanyahu was at the height of an election campaign and being attacked (in the media and by his political rivals) as weak in protecting Israelis living in the Gaza border region.
As for the war last summer, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rightly said, Israel was dragged into it; it did not dictate its course. It may be assumed that, as far as it depends on Netanyahu, he will avoid another flare-up in Gaza during an election campaign, for fear he will not be able to control events. Yet a direct challenge by Hamas (which would cast doubts on the achievements of last summer’s war) could lead to escalation.
Return of the Iranians
There is another development in the background that is worthy of our attention. Hamas is slowly restoring ties with Iran. Until 2012, Iran and Syria were the main suppliers of weapons to the regime in Gaza. Ties unraveled due to the civil war in Syria, when President Bashar Assad’s forces massacred members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ parent movement), and the Palestinians could not sit idly by.
Hamas closed its political bureau in Damascus (its leader, Khaled Meshal, is now in Doha, the capital of Qatar) and denigrated the Syrian president. Iran, in response, stopped weapons shipments to Hamas. In recent months, a compromise seems nearer between Tehran and Gaza. The Iranians praised Hamas’ strong stand against the IDF in the summer, and Hamas thanked Iran for the weapons it had received in the past.
At the beginning of the month, a Hamas delegation even visited Tehran, for the first time in a few years. It can be assumed that Iran will try to renew weapons smuggling into the Strip. And like every other time Iran gets involved in the region, their return to the scene in Gaza cannot be considered good news.