The Israeli military is increasingly confident that rocket fire at the greater Tel Aviv and Ashdod areas from Gaza last week was due to extraordinary weather conditions and faulty Hamas maintenance of its rocket launchers.
The assessment is based on intelligence, as well as on Hamas’ conduct. The organization approached mediators immediately to relay to Israel that the shooting was not a result of any operational decision by Hamas and that they were investigating it.
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Israel decided on a measured response to the attack because of weather conditions and a sense, particularly among senior officials in Southern Command, that both sides were seeking to avert what had looked like an increasing likelihood of escalation in recent months. The view in the defense establishment is that Israel’s political leaders aren’t giving enough attention to understandings reached with Hamas. Intelligence assessments warn about the consequences of the deteriorating economic situation in Gaza, which is currently undergoing a second, and much worse, wave of coronavirus infections.
Hamas managed to handle the first coronavirus wave smoothly, keeping the rate of infection low. Now, however, there are many more cases – and concern that the actual rate may be much higher than what is known, as a result of Gazans’ reluctance to be tested and under-reporting of deaths.
Thanks to international aid, Hamas has improved its testing capability from 200 a day during the first wave to 3,500 a day. The number of ventilators has also risen to 160. But the Gaza economy is going downhill. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Israel, merchants and businesspeople from Gaza are not allowed into the country except for humanitarian reasons. The defense establishment and Southern Command have warned that past experience shows a direct link between the worsening of the economy and terrorism.
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The unemployment rate in Gaza is close to 50 percent and wages in the public sector are 60 shekels ($18) a day, with some people ready to work for 20 shekels a day in order to buy basic food supplies. Families receive two days’ worth of water per week. The electric power supply to civilians is limited to 12 hours a day.
Military sources said that several other factors make another round of fighting increasingly probable. The normalization of ties between Israel and the Gulf states was seen by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a betrayal of Palestinian aspirations. This has led to stronger links between the two groups.
Hamas is not interested in an escalation, the Israeli defense establishment believes, as proven rising number of forces deployed near the border fence with the aim of keeping away anyone seeking to provoke an Israeli military response.
For the Israeli military, Hamas' recent efforts to raise the level of tension is an attempt to rekindle the process of achieving a truce. In the past, Hamas activists would fire a rocket or mortar at Israeli border communities, the group would ease restrictions to allow Islamic Jihad to do so. The current provocations is restricted to the launch of incendiary balloons, an action that sources say is less likely to lead to another round of fighting or large-scale attacks in Gaza.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to gain military strength. Even if they are not interested in war, the organizations in Gaza feel they must be prepared for an Israeli offensive. Meanwhile, the fact that Israel has not made a decision about moving ahead with understandings with Hamas compels its military to focus on readiness for another military confrontation.
The defense establishment understands that any agreement to improve Gaza’s infrastructure and reach understandings with Hamas would have to be tied to a prisoner swap. Hamas would not be willing to exchange Israelis being held in Gaza for money or economic aid. The Isreali military expects the political leadership to decide what price it is willing to pay and proceed accordingly.
Few in the defense establishment believe that another round of fighting in Gaza would lead to a truce any different than the one signed after Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The same military sources say that Hamas might be surprised by the intensity of Israeli fire and the large number of casualties and property damage, but even that would not necessarily lead to a different agreement.