While Israel’s political and military leaders were busy with the Russian crisis, the Palestinian front heated up again. Over the past week, nine Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in incidents in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
As Israel Television News reported, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, warned at the security cabinet’s last meeting that the Trump administration’s harsh sanctions on the Palestinians were pushing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the wall, increasing the chances of an escalation in the territories.
People at the meeting said Eisenkot sounded more pessimistic than he has been since he took office in February 2015. The problems are well known.
International efforts to ease the friction between Hamas and Israel in Gaza depend on the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to serve as a conduit for funding to Gaza, but Abbas refuses because Hamas won’t put its security forces under the PA’s control. And Abbas has suffered repeated blows from Washington (most recently the closure of the PLO office there), though he has continued security cooperation with Israel.
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Both the IDF and the Shin Bet security service advocate immediate steps to improve the PA’s economy while also pressing Abbas to help solve the Gaza problem. The intelligence agencies believe that Hamas is deliberately heating up the Gaza border to pull its reconciliation talks with the PA out of the deep freeze.
Demonstrations and clashes with Israeli troops along the Gaza border, which used to happen every Friday, now happen roughly every two days. The number of incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza at Israel is rising, and Hamas has organized new units to harass soldiers at night through infiltrations and vandalism along the border.
The Gazans seem to have found the IDF’s weak spot: It’s hard to deal with mass demonstrations at night. Crowd-control measures are less effective, visibility is worse and snipers are more likely to hit the wrong person.
If incendiary kites and balloons cause more fires, that could increase political pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for harsher measures against Hamas, leading to a new round of fighting. The last round, involving Israeli airstrikes and dozens of rockets from Gaza, was on August 8. Another scenario worrying the army is a large-scale nighttime infiltration under cover of a demonstration that results in Hamas operatives penetrating an Israeli community.
Israel is operating on borrowed time in Gaza. Absent a breakthrough in the international negotiations, another escalation probably isn’t far off.