Friday’s bloodshed in the Gaza Strip – seven Palestinians killed by Israeli fire, including two boys 12 and 14, and dozens wounded – was the worst in almost two months. The level of violence appears to be a direct result of a decision by Hamas.
The organization’s leaders in Gaza have been threatening for weeks to escalate the clashes with Israel along the border due to the impasse in talks on a plan to rebuild the enclave. During this period, the frequency of the Palestinians’ violent demonstrations has increased to almost every day, and the same goes for attempts to break through the border fence. On Friday, dozens of demonstrators managed to get through the fence, until soldiers drove them off.
According to the army, around 20,000 Palestinians took part in Friday’s protests, almost double the previous week’s number. Moreover, Palestinians threw more than 100 improvised bombs and grenades at the soldiers. These numbers attest to advance planning and preparation.
The March of Return demonstrations began on March 30 as an independent initiative by Gazan civil society. But almost everything that has happened since reflects an organized plan of action by Hamas, which controls the level of the violence and has so far reined it in every time the situation deteriorates to the point that an Israeli military operation in Gaza seems likely.
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The last round of serious violence between Israel and Hamas occurred on August 8, when Palestinians fired some 200 rockets at Israel and the air force attacked dozens of targets in Gaza. After that, a temporary truce was arranged through Egyptian and UN mediation, and more intensive talks began about a long-term arrangement.
But these talks, most of which have been conducted in Cairo between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, hit an impasse. And in the absence of progress, Hamas began gradually heating up the situation along the border.
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Egypt’s hopes for a long-term agreement still require help from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Abbas has no interest in contributing to an arrangement that would help his political rival, Hamas, while sending Palestinians the message that only people who use violence against Israel are capable of extorting concessions from it.
Everything the mediators have achieved so far – securing more donations for UNRWA, the aid agency for Palestinian refugees, and Qatar’s apparent willingness to pay for fuel for Gaza’s power plant – is merely partial compensation for the sanctions recently imposed on the Palestinians by Washington and on Gaza by Abbas. And the impact of these sanctions is liable to worsen in the coming months.
This is the basis for the pessimistic assessments about the likelihood of intensified violence in Gaza that the intelligence agencies have voiced at recent meetings of both the cabinet and the security cabinet. This weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli reporters who accompanied him to the UN General Assembly in New York that the government and the defense establishment were prepared “for every scenario, this is not an empty statement.”
So far, Netanyahu has staved off the more hawkish members of his governing coalition, who have pushed for a large-scale military operation in Gaza in response to the incendiary kites Gazans have sent over the border. But he isn’t saying what he’s doing to improve Gaza’s economy, something that could perhaps delay a new outbreak of violence there for quite some time.
Maybe by pure chance, September and October have a track record of being bloody months in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saturday was the 18th anniversary of the outbreak of the worst violence in recent decades, the second intifada, which waned only six years later. Three years ago this week, what has become known as the stabbing intifada began – a wave of stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks that the security forces needed almost a year to suppress. And the coming weeks once again provide no grounds for optimism.