Analysis

Hamas Could Cause an Escalation on the Israeli Border. Abbas Could Start a Greater Conflict

The Friday protests at the Gaza fence are the first test for the new Israeli army chief ■ Does the IDF shrug off criticism, even if it’s true?

Palestinians walk past a rain-water puddle during a demonstration along the border with Israel, Gaza, January 11, 2019.
AFP

The first test for the new chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, is the Gaza Strip. The direction will become apparent Friday afternoon during the weekly demonstrations led by Hamas along the border fence. For more than a week, Israel has been holding up the monthly transfer of $15 million from Qatar to Gaza, though Israel hasn’t officially confirmed it.

This is a punitive measure in retribution for the slight increase in the violence in the border protests, but it may also be linked to the right wing’s attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of the cash transfers. Increased violence this weekend could lead to Israeli airstrikes against Hamas, with ensuing rocket fire from the Strip and another round of escalation.

On the other hand, Israel overall isn’t interfering with the Qatari payments, which have increased the fuel supply in Gaza, allowing for more hours of electricity a day.

>> Israel to decide on Qatari money to Gaza based on nature of Friday's border protest

This has a restraining effect, with Netanyahu not paying a political price because there are no incriminating photos. Pictures of cash-filled suitcases first leaked during a dispute over the issue between Netanyahu and then-IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot on one side, and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned shortly thereafter. Israel’s decision to widen the fishing zone for Gaza fishermen was made almost in secret, with no official IDF announcement.

Despite the many Gazans who have been killed or wounded and the increased economic burden caused by the March of Return at the border, Israeli defense officials note Hamas’ great satisfaction with the protest’s achievements. To Hamas, this is an effective weapon against Israel, embarrassing it abroad (due to the deaths of demonstrators) and forcing it to ease restrictions on the transfer of money and fuel.

The demonstrations also prompted Egypt to ease travel restrictions out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing. To Israel’s dismay, there has been some rapprochement between Hamas and Egyptian intelligence. Egypt has just permitted the transport by tankers of liquefied natural gas to Gaza, intended for home use, a move that probably profits someone in Egypt.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 22, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

This winter in Gaza the despair has eased slightly. Someone who can help cause an escalation, and who’s definitely considering such a move, is the Palestinian president. Mahmoud Abbas may soon announce a further cut to the funds that the Palestinian Authority transfers to Gaza.

Hopes for a wide-ranging deal in Gaza have withered since last summer’s talks. These hopes included a long cease-fire, a significant easing of the blockade, a solution to the issue of prisoners and missing soldiers, and work permits for Gaza laborers, letting them work at Israeli border communities.

The main effort is now directed at controlling the height of the flames along the fence. This gets measured anew every Friday.

The round of exit interviews by Eisenkot and IDF Ombudsman Yitzhak Brik was hopefully the last episode in the two’s sharp dispute, one that occupied the General Staff last year. Kochavi will not directly discuss Brik’s claims, but it’s likely that his first moves will take into account Brik’s scathing criticism of the IDF’s preparedness for war, of the condition of the reserve forces in the ground forces, of the organizational culture and of the manpower crisis.

The IDF waged a holding battle against Brik’s claims, mainly on two central ones – the war-preparedness and what Brik called the “culture of mendacity” that has spread throughout the army. These two issues are linked because they touch on Eisenkot’s main concern during his term – maintaining public trust in the IDF. If Israelis suspect that the army knowingly lies and is truly unprepared for war, what will become of the public’s trust?

New Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, reviews an honor guard in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jabuary 15, 2019.
Ariel Schalit/AP

In TV and radio interviews, Eisenkot was clearly angry at claims that senior officers systematically resort to deception, both inwardly and outwardly. In his speech during the changeover with Kochavi, Eisenkot said the army is ready for war. He said it’s “a fit, prepared and powerful military that has grown stronger in wisdom and determination.”

When Brik raised concerns about unpreparedness, committees were set up in the army to examine this. One investigation took place at the Knesset, at a subcommittee headed by MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor). MKs gave the army a clean bill of health, relying in part on their talks with reserve battalion commanders.

It turned out that some of these officers had received calls from senior officers who prepared them for the meetings. They were told not to air their dirty laundry in public and that “not all the MKs taking part in these meetings necessarily wish the army well.” Some were told that “this was the time to chip in and shoulder the burden.”

The message worked and any criticism by these officers was minimal. It seems not to have truly reflected the range of feelings and impressions that these commanders had. Is this good for the army? That’s very doubtful.

This week, Yoav Limor from the daily Israel Hayom reported something similar in a Military Police investigation into the death of Sgt. Eviatar Yosefi from the paratroopers’ reconnaissance unit. Yosefi drowned in a stream in the Galilee during a navigation exercise. Soldiers from his unit, who were summoned by the Military Police, told their parents that their commanders briefed them beforehand on what they should and shouldn’t say in their testimony. It seems the army’s problem with truthful reporting is more serious than senior commanders would like to admit.