Analysis

Escalating Incidents on Gaza-Israel Border Indicate Hamas Is Losing Its Grip

Hamas has a lot to lose from a major round of violence, but with election looming, Netanyahu's restraint may not last long

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli forces.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

The recent series of incidents in the Gaza Strip are exceptional in magnitude compared to the past few months. Over the weekend, rockets were fired twice from the Strip at Israeli communities on the Gaza border. And on Saturday, the army killed three members of a Palestinian squad that was trying to get into Israel and injured a fourth member.

In addition, there have been serious attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – the murder of 18-year-old Dvir Sorek in Gush Etzion and the subsequent wounding of a policeman and two civilians in a car ramming and a stabbing, providing a picture of significant escalation.

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And yet, the Israeli response so far has been quite restrained. The air force made do with symbolic attacks in response to the rocket fire (for the first rocket; the second prompted no response at all). In the West Bank, the response has been to interrogate and arrest people suspected of planning additional attacks.

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But despite its harsh rhetoric, the government has stuck to a policy of avoiding collective punishment in the West Bank. The Palestinians killed were the perpetrators of the attacks (the driver in the car ramming attack and the two young men who stabbed a policeman in Jerusalem’s Old City). There is a clear effort not to harm civilians who are not involved in the violence.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been taken to task as a result. The right wing and the centrist Kahol Lavan party have blamed him for the deteriorating security situation near the Gaza border and in the West Bank and have demanded a harsh response to the attacks. But for the time being, there is no sign that the prime minister is changing his position. It appears that his basic aversion to military entanglements, about which a great deal has been written in recent years, is still intact.

The real test will come ahead of the Knesset election in less than a month: If there is a major escalation, in the form of hundreds of rockets again being fired at southern Israel, as occurred last November and in May of this year, will Netanyahu continue to demonstrate restraint? That depends mainly on the casualty toll on the two sides and his Likud party’s situation in the polls.

During the escalation in May, at the height of failed government coalition talks, Netanyahu chose to hold back even after four Israeli civilians were killed, seeking a hasty end to the exchange of blows after a wave of Israel Air Force assaults. His response might change if he feels that events in the Gaza Strip are threatening his ability to win the September election.

Other variables

Two other variables need to be added to this equation. One is the stance of the Israel Defense Forces, which is now led by a new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, who seems slightly more willing than his predecessor to demonstrate the capabilities the IDF has amassed in the Gaza Strip. The other is the position of the Hamas leadership, which itself is facing a growing challenge to its control of Gaza from the smaller Palestinian factions and groups that have splintered from Hamas itself.

The new term used by the Hamas leadership and the media outlets associated with it to describe activists killed in incidents at the border is “angry young men.” Most of the young men who have tried to cross the Gaza border fence into Israel in recent weeks were in the past associated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Some left those groups and moved closer to the extremist Salafi groups active in the Gaza Strip. Others have not officially left the mainstream organizations.

Recent escalation on the Israel-Gaza border.
AFP

The extent of the phenomenon is somewhat reminiscent of the wave of “lone wolf” terrorism that surfaced in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the fall of 2015. (Then as now, Palestinian fury over police actions in East Jerusalem have contributed to the tension).

The difference is that in the Gaza Strip, most of these young men have firearms, not knives. Their attacks apparently reflect frustration over Hamas for distancing itself from violent confrontations with Israel, along with criticism over the scant accomplishments that agreement to keep things quiet has provided to Gaza residents.

Relief promised by Egypt and Qatar based on contacts with Israel has been relatively slow to materialize. The blockade of the Strip has not been lifted and civilian infrastructure remains in sorry condition. Under such circumstances, the number of attempted attacks has grown – and Hamas has demonstrated only lax control over events near the border with Israel.

Interpreting the upsurge

The large number of incidents has also spawned a wave of analysis in Israel on the part of journalists and politicians suggesting that the many attempted attacks have been well-orchestrated by the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar. According to this explanation, Sinwar has been turning a blind eye, perhaps even actively encouraging attacks that it is convenient for him and for Israel to ascribe to a group of young “renegades.” In this manner, Sinwar is pressuring Israel to move faster on promised relief. If the relief does not arrive, the Palestinians will continue to make the situation worse, perhaps to the point of a major confrontation like the war of the summer of 2014, which ended five years ago last week.

An Israeli tank on the border opposite the Gaza town of Dir al-Balah.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

But conversations with a number of Israeli intelligence officials reveal nearly wall-to-wall disagreement with that thesis. The prevalent claim among defense officials is that the recent attacks mainly demonstrate the weakness of Hamas in controlling events. According to this approach, Sinwar actually has a lot to lose.

The most significant steps to ease the situation for Hamas are actually coming from Egypt. The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai is now open most days of the week.

At the same time, with Israel’s quiet consent, Egypt has recently been operating another major crossing point for goods in the Rafah area, including food and building materials. Hamas taxes the merchandise coming over the border there, earning it tens of millions of shekels a month in income in the process.

Israel has also taken several steps that are not reported in detail to the Israeli public to ease the situation in Gaza. Among other measures, electricity is now on for some 16 hours a day (as opposed to four hours just a few months ago) and thousands of Gazans – officially designated as business people but many of whom are day laborers – are now being allowed into Israel.

Israeli concessions

Israel has also reduced by 30 percent the list of dual-use materials that had not been allowed into Gaza because, in addition to their legitimate uses, they could be used for in the construction of tunnels, military bases or the production of weapons. At the same time, some progress has been made on several long-term infrastructure projects, including connecting another water pipeline and another electricity line into Gaza.

All of this gives Hamas reason to continue to avoid a major military confrontation. The key question will be whether these relief measures are enough at this point to satisfy Gazans. Or could frustrations over the lack of implementation of more extensive such measures – some of which were halted when talks over the return of Israel’s civilians and the bodies of its soldiers reached a dead end – lead to more widespread efforts to commit terror attacks, whether Hamas is controlling the situation or not? In such a case, the result could be a downhill slide into conflict.