While Israel, Syria and Lebanon exchanged threatening messages in the north this week, the Southern Command of the Israel Defense Forces carried out a surprise call-up of thousands of reservists, simulating a swift decline into war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was part of a pivot in training reserve forces, both as part of the overall policy of Gadi Eisenkot but also to address the possibility of routine clashes with Hamas deteriorating into an unintentional war in the Strip.
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A few hours after the call-up exercise was completed, Israeli tanks fired at three Palestinians who approached the border fence east of Rafah, killing an 18-year-old man and injuring his two companions. Israel claimed the three were acting suspiciously in a no-go zone near the fence. The army is investigating whether they were laying explosive devices. The incident came amid an increase in cross-border rocket fire from Gaza. These incidents arouse a sense of déjà vu for those with a long memory, similar to the feeling during the periods preceding Israel’s previous three campaigns against Hamas — operations Cast Lead (2008), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). Hamas maintained discreet ties with small Salafi organizations (and sometimes with Islamic Jihad) in the months preceding those campaigns, so that their attack operations would serve their goals, too.
Shin Bet security service and military officials assert that the circumstances are different this time. They describe the rocket fire as protest moves by Salafi groups against Hamas because the regime in Gaza imprisoned over 550 of their members. Hamas has hardened its stance toward the Salafi groups, according to Israeli analysis, because some members of its military wing have trickled steadily into these groups, probably out of frustration that the organization has halted daily attacks on Israel. The Salafists are firing rockets mainly to threaten Hamas and show their ability to drag it into a confrontation with Israel if it doesn’t ease the pressure on them.
This interpretation can explain Israel’s relatively mild responses — in contrast to the public rhetoric of the prime minister and defense minister — to cease-fire violations by the Palestinians. While Israel responds to each rocket, the responses are limited to precise attacks on Hamas positions near the border to assert the group’s responsibility for what happens in Gaza.
It has recently avoided multi-targeted, destructive attacks. Israel believes that Hamas is moving to restrain other groups, avoiding escalating steps. The status quo depends on two assumptions, that the intelligence assessment is accurate (and Hamas is not playing a double game regarding the small groups) and that Israel’s leaders will continue to be practical and not be influenced by political crises.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, internal tension is rising. Palestinian policemen exchanged gunfire with armed militants in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. A policeman was killed and one suspect was seriously wounded. Last week, Israeli commandos killed a wanted Palestinian while trying to arrest him in Ramallah and a youth in the Al-Arub refugee camp north of Hebron was killed in an incident where incendiary bombs were thrown at soldiers.
Israelis tend to minimize the cumulative effect of the enormous daily frustration Palestinians feel in the friction with the wider apparatus maintaining the occupation in the territories. The steep decline in attacks in recent months is conditional. There are sufficient reasons on the ground for renewed escalation and a dramatic trigger is enough to reignited the situation, despite the close security cooperation between Israel and Palestinian security services. Palestinians in the territories follow with concern the situation in Israeli prisons, where about 2,000 Hamas inmates are threatening a renewed mass hunger strike to restore conditions taken away from them in wake of the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens in 2014.
This week’s speech by former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo at the same conference, in which he said the only existential threat to Israel lies in the continuing of the occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians. “Israel has chosen not to choose, hoping the conflict will resolve itself – perhaps the Arabs will disappear, maybe some cosmic miracle will happen,” Pardo said. “It is a ticking time bomb. We chose to stick our head in the sand.”