An uptick in cross-border rocket fire and launch of explosive devices from the Gaza Strip this week has been approved by Hamas, Israeli defense officials believe, in an attempt to pressure Israel before its March 2 election.
According to defense officials, the Gaza-based group believes the Israeli leadership has not been implementing steps recently agreed through international mediators, including the promotion of infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip and the reestablishment of the joint industrial zone at the Karni crossing, at the required pace.
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Hamas has told Israel via the same international partners it expected the deal to go ahead regardless of the political difficulties facing Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.
By allowing these attacks on Israel to continue, while making sure they do not hit actual targets, Hamas’s aim is not to cause escalation, defense officials assess, but rather embarrass Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Last week, Bennett approved a shipment of cement into the Strip for the first time since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The material, which is crucial for the reconstruction of Gaza, is also a concern for Israelis, as it could be used to build cross-border tunnels. Import of tires was also approved, as well as an increase in the number of entry permits granted to Gazan merchants, and the sale of agricultural produce in Israel. On Saturday, it is these latest overtures that the Israeli government decided to close down. If the situation does not deteriorate, they will likely be restored in the coming days.
There is little support for increased military action in Israel’s defense establishment. The perception is that there has been relatively little change in the security situation in Gaza over the last two years and that, if the balloons and rockets do inspire fear in the residents of the Gaza border area, they do not require a military response. Past experience has proven that reaching an agreement with Hamas can stop the limited balloon threat, which can also be met through technological means.
Given the fraught political context in Israel, the military leadership would rather avoid the backlash of a potentially unpopular conflict, which could damage its image with the public and the morale of conscripts. Nevertheless, officials say, civilian casualties on either side could threaten this status quo and throw the region into certain escalation.
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As previously reported in Haaretz, senior Israeli military officials are attempting to defuse tensions with Palestinian leaders over the recently unveiled Trump peace plan. Israel will not annex the West Bank in the near future, Palestinian officials were told, and not without prior discussion. Israel asked the PA not to compromise security coordination, with the understanding that it’s unclear which part of the plan will in fact be implemented, if any.