If Hamas is truly interested in a long-term cease-fire with Israel, it has a weird way of showing it. The Palestinian fire in the direction of IDF forces by the Gaza border Tuesday morning drew an immediate response from Israel in which two members of the Hamas military wing were killed. The efforts to reach an accord in Gaza will proceed in the shadow of this latest escalation.
According to Hamas, the incident was a misunderstanding. Hamas says a military demonstration for Hamas officials was taking place at the naval commando base in northern Gaza and Israeli troops mistakenly thought the gunfire was aimed at them and responded with tank fire. The IDF maintains that its response was obligatory given the circumstances. The force spotted gunfire in its direction close to the fence – and had to respond with lethal fire of its own. There is no expectation that a commander in the field investigate the intention of enemy fire if he feels his men are in danger.
Hamas’ naval commando unit has been at the forefront of the friction with Israel in the past months. With aid from the Iranians, Hamas has put much effort into boosting the unit’s operative capabilities. The air force frequently strikes its base in order to set back these capabilities. Just this week, the Defense Ministry announced the construction of a 200-meter-long underwater barrier designed to thwart infiltrations by scuba-diving attackers.
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Today’s incident is the third of its kind in the past two and a half weeks. In the two previous incidents, a Givati soldier, First Sergeant Aviv Levy, was killed, and an officer from the brigade was moderately wounded. Those two incidents occurred just 400 meters apart, in the space of less than a week. Both times, it was sniper fire that struck forces deployed along the fence, in the southern sector. However, certain characteristics of each attack indicate that they were carried out by separate cells. The snipers in those attacks were not hurt.
The killing of the two militants today led, predictably, to threats of revenge from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The IDF has recently deployed Iron Dome batteries in several areas in the Negev ahead of a potential escalation. The Palestinian organizations have generally responded with rocket fire following the deaths of people from the military wing, while to date that has not been the response when Palestinian demonstrators have been killed at the weekly protests near the border fence.
The Palestinian reports from last week about a possible imminent deal with Israel have been replaced for now with a more pessimistic and cautious tone. The mood was similar at the Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday. The ministers were told that many obstacles remain on the way to an arrangement in Gaza, chiefly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas and commit to a rehabilitation process for Gaza, plus the problem of the missing and captive Israelis there. Israel is apparently prepared to delay to some extent progress in returning the bodies of the soldiers and the two living civilians, but it wants a gesture from Hamas – such as a full report on the condition of the Israelis – before it will approve a deal.
Hamas announced Tuesday that its leadership made a number of decisions and will send a delegation to Cairo to continue the talks with the Egyptians concerning the reconciliation, breaking the blockade and attaining quiet with Israel. For now, it appears that the proposal, in the first stage, will be for a “small arrangement”: a cease-fire that Israel is demanding to also include a halt to the launching of the incendiary kites and balloons, and a halt to the violent friction at the border fence, in return for a restoration of the full movement of goods at the Kerem Shalom crossing and lifting of some of the restrictions on fishing off the Gaza coast.
This is a more easily attainable solution that serves the interests of all sides to achieve quiet and avoid war. But it doesn’t come close to solving Gaza’s fundamental problems. This is why top IDF officials support more generous measures: granting Israeli approval for immediate aid in the most pressing areas – water, food, electricity, fuel, medical equipment and repairing infrastructure and sewage systems. This is also where they are most at odds with the politicians, who are wary of moving towards a deal without having in hand at least a convincing promise of progress on the issue of the missing and captive Israelis, and also wary, of course, of being perceived as weak against Hamas.
Things will become clearer, perhaps, after another round of talks between Hamas and the PA in Cairo. Meanwhile, we can expect more of the same: incendiary kites, sporadic flare-ups along the fence and lots of threats.