Israel and Hamas Maintain a Fragile Truce

In Gaza, as in Lebanon, the situation could deteriorate into warfare, even though neither side seeks a conflict.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli military exercise on the Gaza border, March 22, 2015.
An Israeli military exercise on the Gaza border, March 22, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Grad Katyusha rocket that landed near Gan Yavneh on Tuesday evening quickly turned out to have been the result of an internal Palestinian conflict: A skirmish over the appointment of a local commander in the military arm of Islamic Jihad served as an excuse for one of the sides to try to involve Israel. The shooting caused no injuries and Hamas hastened to clarify that it had nothing to do with the incident.

This is not the first time such things have happened in the context of Gazan squabbles that are not directly connected to Israel. Yet nevertheless there was a reminder here – exactly 10 months after the end of the last war – that a truce is something quite fragile. Even when the two sides to the indirect deal, Israel and Hamas, want to maintain it, there are enough secondary players who, if they so desire, are capable of disrupting the quiet.

In ordinary times, the Israeli public devotes hardly any thought to the results of last summer’s war. The Color Red siren that sends inhabitants of the Ashdod and Ashkelon region scurrying to shelters and fortified rooms just when they are putting the children to bed has a way of reminding us of what we had hoped we had forgotten.

In the past 10 months there have been relatively few incidents in Gaza: Rockets were fired six times, all of them into open areas, and twice light arms fire was opened on Israel Defense Forces patrols along the Gaza Strip border fence. In one of these incidents, in December, a soldier was severely wounded.

The Palestinians also have a list of Israeli infringements, mainly around issues of activity by naval boats that forced Gazan fisherman away from proximity to the border. This average, of an incident once every five weeks, is not much different from the situation that prevailed along the Gaza Strip border after the two previous operations, Cast Lead in 2009 and Pillar of Defense in 2012.

In the previous cases, before the sides got entangled in another conflict, there were a few months of a slow slide down the slope – a gradual shortening of the intervals between one “small” exchange of blows and the next and increasing difficulty in calming the sides until everything went up in flames. At the moment it seems as though the situation this time is somewhat different.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Wednesday in a lecture at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies that the “heavy club of Operation Protective Edge is still hoisted in the air and it has to be maintained. We must not ignore it – this part of the deterrence.”

Ya’alon spoke about the Israeli decision to bomb four Hamas and Islamic Jihad military targets in the organizations’ training areas in Gaza. In fact, the targets were attacked in the middle of the night after it was clear that no living soul was present there. The Israeli rhetoric is tough, but the deployment of force is restrained and the signals are rather gentle.

Hamas, which hastened to make it clear to Israel that the launching of the Katyushas was not done with its agreement and arrested three Islamic Jihad activists on suspicion of having fired the rockets, knows that the Israel Air Force action was basically pro forma. The new rules of the game are understood, at least by the two major sides.

Interestingly, it seems that the exchanges of messages between Israel and Hamas no longer necessarily go through Egypt. The relations between Cairo and Gaza are so tense that it looks as though Israel too can no longer count on Egypt as a mediator able to circumvent the agreements with Hamas. And here, more than in the circumstances of the internal quarrel in the Islamic Jihad, or in the crisis between the Hamas regime and one of the extreme Salafist organizations (which led to the previous firing of a rocket at Israel, on Independence Day evening), lies the more significant potential risk.

The economic situation in the Gaza Strip continues to be intolerable – and the differences of opinion dividing Hamas, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are making it very difficult at the moment to ameliorate it.

After the tremendous damage done by its bombardments in the Gaza Strip during the war, Israel has considerably relaxed the restrictions on entry of goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing point (the daily average is now about 650 truckloads) and recently has also permitted the passage of several thousand businesspeople from Gaza into Israel and the West Bank. However, it seems that the problem is no longer the transfer of goods but rather a lack of money with which to buy them. The unemployment rate is nearly unbelievable, 43%; transit through the Rafah crossing point into Egypt is minimal (Cairo opens the crossing only to limited movement, at most for a few days a month); and the money the donor countries promised to the Gaza Strip after the war has not arrived yet. Of the more than $5 billion promised, thus far only about $300 million have been received in Gaza. Building materials to rehabilitate the ruins of thousands of homes that were hit are going into Gaza, but at the current pace completing the projects will take years.

In order even to begin to extricate Gaza from its distress a three-way agreement is needed, but the gaps are large. Egypt is conditioning the opening of the Rafah crossing point on the Palestinian Authority assuming exclusive control of the Gaza border crossings. It is not at all certain that the PA leadership wants to take this headache upon itself, but it does want overall security authority in the entire Gaza Strip, a demand Hamas is not even willing to consider.

To the explosive economic situation is added Egypt’s demonstrative loathing of Hamas. Not only does Cairo not trust Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, it is also accusing its heads of transferring secret aid to Jihad organization activists in Sinai, most notably Ansar Beit al-Maqdas, which is affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS).

Conflict with Hezbollah unlikely

At the annual Fisher Institute conference, alongside Ya’alon Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel also spoke. The Institute for Strategic Air and Space Research has been nearly home ground for Air Force commanders in recent years, and from their talks quite a lot can be learned about the Air Force’s future plans for building itself.

Eshel, who explained that the force has recently chalked up significant progress in its attack and defensive capabilities, said that only a small part of these capabilities were shown in Operation Protective Edge, in which Israel contended with an enemy that does not have an air force, has only a tiny anti-aircraft system and a limited arsenal of rockets. A conflict with Hezbollah would be a challenge of an entirely different order, but Eshel does not have the impression that such a scenario will play out in the near future.

“Strategically, in the south [Gaza] and in the north [Lebanon], those guys are busy with a lot of troubles. I don’t remember [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah making three speeches in a single week and in the most significant speech, on the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, he barely mentions Israel but rather focuses on ISIS as an existential threat,” he said. “They [Hezbollah] are entangled in the north. In the south they are busy with rehabilitation.”

If a war was to break out, he assessed, it is reasonable to suppose that it would be the result of a miscalculation, a chain of incidents and retaliations that no one had intended in advance because they would lead to an all-out conflict. And then he concluded with a warning, in the style common to Air Force commanders from Ezer Weizman on: “I would definitely not recommend to any of our enemies to open another front.”

Like Ya’alon’s comments on Gaza, Eshel’s remarks on Lebanon are part of a public correspondence between Israel and its foes in the region. The statements are made to a local audience, as a means of explaining the complex strategic reality. However, at the same time these things are said with the clear knowledge that someone in Beirut, Damascus and Teheran is listening intently and analyzing the meanings.

After all, despite the sides’ declared lack of desire to go to war, they nearly found themselves dragged into one just last January. The bombardment of a Hezbollah convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights (for which Ya’alon, again, hinted indirectly that Israel was responsible in his speech at the conference), and in its wake the anti-tank ambush of a Givati convoy in the Shaba Farms area put Israel and Hezbollah on the brink of conflict. In retrospect, it appears that the risk taken was even greater than the Israeli public understood in real time, though in the end the tension abated and relative quiet returned to the north.

In the war of statements Hezbollah is now sounding more pressured, and accordingly is talking more. As Eshel pointed out, the sequence of Nasrallah’s statements reflects mainly fear of the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and an attack by extremist Sunni organizations, headed by Islamic State, against Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition to the frequent speeches, the organization is organizing tours for foreign journalists of the areas of the fighting in the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syrian border.

And on Wednesday there appeared an unusually detailed threat against Israel. According to a report by the official Iranian news agency Irna, this week an aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened to destroy Israel. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, Khamenei’s top military aide, said on a television program that “if the Zionists try to do something bad to Iran, we will destroy Haifa and Tel Aviv. Iran is strong. It will respond in a decisive and unexpected way to any possible attack.”

Hezbollah, he said, has 80,000 rockets ready to be fired at “cities in the occupied territories.” The unusual aspect here is the number: While Israel published more generous estimates concerning Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and missiles (the most up-to-date assessments have ranged between 130,000 and 150,000), top Iranian and Hezbollah officials usually cite precise numbers.

The general’s statement could be an outcome of the critical stage in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, which are slated to conclude at the end of June. Possibly there is a threat here in light of the Iranian concern, which seems unsubstantiated, that Israel will try to act militarily to disrupt the agreement.

Israeli spokespersons – recently in an article in The New York Times at the beginning of this month – make frequent mention of the tremendous damage the IDF is liable to cause in Lebanon if another war breaks out. Perhaps Iran is reminding Israel here that in a war all the sides are destined to suffer heavy blows and losses.

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