Analysis

Israel-Gaza Flare-up Worst Since 2014 – but War Could Still Be Avoided

After months of playing by new rules, Hamas allows the Islamic Jihad to respond to the killing of three of its militants. But, for now, the Israeli leadership does not see any achievable goal in a full-on war

A mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip that landed near a kindergarten, in an Israeli Kibbutz, May 19, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Clear rules of the game have emerged in Gaza over the past two months – rules from which Israel and Hamas rarely deviated. Every Friday, and sometimes in midweek too, Hamas sent masses to protest along the border fence with Israel. Despite over 100 Palestinians being killed and thousands more being wounded by Israeli gunfire, Hamas preferred to confine the clash to the border fence.

Not only did the organization not fire rockets into Israel; it also forbade the other Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip from committing revenge attacks. Hamas’ calculation was clear: It did not want to damage the narrative it was selling of a popular Palestinian struggle confronting Israeli snipers – even though, under cover of the protests, explosives were planted on the fence and members of Hamas’ military wing led mass attempts to breach the border.

Israelis standing in a kindergarten yard damaged by mortar shells fired from the Gaza Strip, May 29, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

>> Follow all latest updates on Gaza flare-up

In retrospect, it appears Hamas began to alter its approach after the pre-Nakba Day events of May 14, when over 60 Palestinians were killed. The large number of dead drew greater international attention, but still the organization failed to breach the Israeli border fence or break the blockade on Gaza (except for a temporary easing of restraints when Egypt opened the Rafah Crossing for Ramadan).

In the past two weeks, there have been many more incidents by the fence. Hamas cells were sent to the border to sabotage Israel Defense Forces equipment and sites along the tunnel barrier being built by the Defense Ministry, and planted more explosives. In some cases, the militants were seemingly from Hamas; in other cases, they came from other organizations. The IDF maintains that all of these moves were made with Hamas’ approval, and often at its behest.

Map showing location of tunnel destroyed on May 29, 2018.
Haaretz
Israel Army Spokesperson

This increase in incidents along the fence led to a more forceful Israeli response: On Sunday, after a bomb was planted by the fence, an IDF tank shot at and killed three Islamic Jihad militants who were at an adjacent observation post.

In a separate incident on Monday, a member of Hamas’ military wing was killed by IDF fire. In the past, Islamic Jihad would insist on a response whenever Israel hit its members – and it did so again this time. On Tuesday morning, that threat was realized.

At about 7 A.M., Islamic Jihad fired dozens of mortars throughout the area near the border. Many were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. This is further proof of the improvements that have been made to the system, which originally was not intended to deal with mortar threats from just a few kilometers away, but rather Qassam and Katyusha rockets.

There were no Israeli injuries from the morning barrage, although one mortar did land in the yard of a kindergarten. It’s not hard to imagine what might have happened – and how Israel would have responded – had the mortar landed there just 30 minutes later, when parents would have been bringing their children in.

Israel responded in the afternoon with a more intensive operation than usual compared to recent years, but one that was still limited in scope. The air force bombed 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in seven military compounds. The army highlighted the large number of targets and the fact that they were bombed in broad daylight. But the fact that no one was injured in the Gaza bombardments shows the IDF is still being very cautious and seeking to avoid any deaths that would lead to a further escalation.

As the airstrikes were proceeding, the IDF also demolished another Hamas attack tunnel – the 10th it has destroyed in the last six months. This time, it was a tunnel Hamas had dug into Egyptian territory from south of Rafah and from there back into Israel. The extent of its infiltration into Israeli territory was apparently unprecedented – it reached some 900 meters (2,950 feet) past the border.

These details evidently were of less concern to the Palestinian organizations. In the afternoon, another barrage of mortars and short-range 107mm Katyushas were fired at Israel. And this time there were casualties on the Israeli side: six lightly to moderately wounded by shrapnel. This was the biggest strike on the Gaza border communities since the end of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014. And given the way things go between Israel and Gaza, an Israeli response should be expected soon.  

Smoke rising following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, May 29, 2018.
\ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

Hamas calling the shots in Gaza

Over the past four years, during which there have been several periods of escalation, Israeli intelligence has maintained that Hamas does not have full control over what happens in Gaza, and that when rockets were fired at Israel, Hamas had trouble exerting its authority over the smaller Palestinian factions.

The circumstances are different now. For the past few months, Hamas has demonstrated ironclad control and orchestrated the border protests – which began as an independent action by Gazan activists – at will.

The scale of the protests changed in accordance with dictates from above: A day of clashes that left dozens dead might have be followed by days in which there was hardly any violence. Because the IDF foresaw an Islamic Jihad response and issued a warning about it on Sunday, Hamas probably understood this – and its leadership permitted the rocket fire, at least by turning a blind eye to it.

With the back-and-forth blows of the past 24 hours, the rules that Hamas set during the last two months of protests are being shaken. As a result, Hamas will now have a harder time depicting the Palestinian actions as just a popular uprising. As soon as Islamic Jihad entered the picture, it was no surprise that mortars and rockets were fired – especially as the organization is funded by Iran, which has its own reasons for wanting to maintain an escalation in the south since being forced to rein in its moves against Israel in Syria.

The military clash will also affect the protests themselves, which are expected to resume this weekend. Hamas has already announced its intention to organize a major effort at the border fence on June 5, in connection with the 51st anniversary of the Six-Day War. The “Flotilla of Return” that Hamas organized for Tuesday, as a statement of its opposition to the naval blockade of Gaza, has so far generated little media interest.

Tuesday’s exchanges of fire overshadowed recent efforts to obtain a long-term cease-fire in return for civilian and economic benefits for the Gaza Strip. Now, the mediators – but mainly Egypt – will focus on stopping the reciprocal attacks, in order to avert a war. The images from the Gaza border communities are difficult to see and far beyond what has been the norm of recent years. But the situation does not yet appear to be inevitably leading toward war.

The main reason for this is that the Israeli leadership does not see any achievable goal in a Gaza war, considering the price Israel would have to pay. With the exception of MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), no one seems eager to reoccupy Gaza and resurrect the Gush Katif settlements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still concerned about the crisis in the north with Syria and Iran, while the army would prefer to complete construction on the Gaza tunnel barrier – which continued even Tuesday – before entering into any military confrontation.

The government would never admit this aloud, but in most periods of tension it sees Hamas as a fairly comfortable adversary, given that the main alternative – anarchy that would make the 2 million residents of Gaza Israel’s responsibility again – looks even more dangerous. As for the ideas about a new Palestinian government in Gaza, for now these are just on paper.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might be able to assume power there, but he doesn’t want to. And his political rival Mohammed Dahlan may want to, but – for now at least – is unable to.

Things could still get totally out of control and degenerate into an unwanted and unplanned war, just as in the summer of 2014. But even after Tuesday’s events, there still appear to be ways out the parties can take to avoid a collision course.