Like with a push of a button, and certainly on orders from on high, almost all of the weapons fire on the border with the Gaza Strip was halted on Tuesday. Only a day earlier, 58 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded from Israeli army gunfire, on the bloodiest day on the Gaza border since the 2014 war that Israel fought with Hamas. On Tuesday, the violence was substantially curbed as a matter of decision.
On a drive along a considerable length of the border fence with Gaza on Tuesday afternoon, nothing was visible that would remind one of the scenes just a day earlier. Instead of tens of thousands of Palestinian demonstrators, just a few hundred congregated near the fence, following the funerals of those who had been killed on Monday. The number of flash points where demonstrations were held was much smaller and the billowing smoke that had so affected breathing and visibility just a day before was barely to be seen. Israeli soldiers and police were deployed along the fence, but most of them were not called into action at all.
The Palestinian demonstrators made no real attempt to cross the fence and the Israeli army, accordingly, refrained as a rule from using live fire. The level of approval required to open fire was also changed. Instead of leaving the use of sniper fire to the commander on the scene – an officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel – it was returned to brigade commanders with the rank of colonel. By late evening, the Israeli army had already counted several thousand demonstrators on the Gazan side of the border, but considerable restraint was in evidence in the conduct of both sides.
What happened exactly between Israel and Hamas between Monday night and Tuesday morning still remains to be fully clarified. It is known that during the night, Hamas sent Israel a series of messages through Egyptian intelligence and apparently also via Qatari intermediaries telling of its desire to rein in the level of violence.
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Israel responded with steps of its own. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman approved an Israeli army recommendation to reopen the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza for the passage of merchandise despite the heavy damage caused to the Palestinian side of the crossing in rioting over the past two weekends, during which a natural gas pipeline into the Gaza Strip was damaged. At the same time, Egypt approved the transfer of seriously injured demonstrators through its border crossing with Gaza at Rafah to receive medical care in Egyptian hospitals. These appeared to be coordinated steps in a joint effort to calm the situation.
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The sharp turn taken by Hamas proves what had been apparent during the course of the past seven weeks: The leadership of the organization headed by Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh has full control over what happens in Gaza. It has been encouraging the masses to come to the border fence and is overseeing the intensity of the violence at the demonstrations. It is the Hamas leadership that has been deciding to refrain from rocket fire at Israel despite the many deaths of prior weeks. And it is the leadership that is capable of now applying the brakes, despite Monday’s massive bloodletting.
When tempers calm in the future, it will no longer be possible to accept the intelligence explanation that the Israeli army and Shin Bet security service have been providing over the past three years, every time that rockets have been fired from Gaza, that Hamas was having difficulty restraining the smaller Salafi groups there. It has been made very clear that Gaza is quiet when that’s what Hamas wants, and when it has an interest in the other direction, the violence increases.
When it comes to the reasons for Monday night’s shift in strategy, they appear to be tied particularly to the high number of fatalities – nearly 60 killed on Monday, after a total of more than 50 were killed in weekend demonstrations since the current wave began on March 30, in addition to thousands injured. These are numbers that place a huge burden on the health system in Gaza, which is also subject to major difficulties.
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There may also be other considerations at play. Recently Israel threatened, through Egyptian intelligence, that a continued escalation could lead it to target senior Hamas figures. In addition, while Tuesday may have been Nakba Day, when Palestinians mourn their exile and loss of their land in the 1948 war, but early Wednesday marks the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, and it’s likely that the Hamas leadership is also taking that into account. It looks like it’s time for a tactical pause and a reassessment of the organization’s policy following recent developments, until the next planned demonstrations on Friday.
Israeli intelligence officials believe Hamas in not headed for war now. The reasonable assumption is that the heads of the organization wished to restore the narrative of popular Palestinian resistance against Israel and, through the killings on the border, forcing Israel to agree to concessions on the Gazan economy and freedom of movement that might halt the deterioration in living conditions in the Strip. Hamas is having a difficult time now in administering the Strip in light of its diplomatic isolation and the reduction in financial assistance from the Palestinian Authority and the Gulf states.
Even if the violence dies down, Israel doesn’t have a real policy in the Strip other than firmly refusing Hamas’ demands. Israel also has no program that could help extract Gaza from the trap it finds itself in. Defense establishment professionals including, unusually, the Shin Bet security service, share the assessment of the dire situation they say the Gazan economy and infrastructure are in. Israel’s political leaders, however, do not believe in changing that situation.
There are two constraints weighing on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman in this regard. One is the determined effort by the families of two soldiers whose bodies are being held in Gaza, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. The families object to any easing of the situation in Gaza as long as arrangements are not made to return the two bodies (and to return two Israeli civilians from Gaza).
The second constraint is that each of the parties in Netanyahu’s coalition is looking over its shoulder to make sure the other parties are not outflanking them by sounding more hawkish.
Even in the face of his impressive series of recent successes, it appears Netanyahu cannot permit himself to be seen as too soft on Hamas. The army brass, who understand the political situation, are conveying periodic distress signals. In practice, the trap remains. That’s more important and worrying than any tactical debate on where to station snipers.
The violent collision on the Gaza border on Monday did indeed return international attention to the Palestinians against the backdrop of the dedication of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Following the killings, Turkey and South Africa announced diplomatic steps against Israel. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced days of mourning and Arab governments issued statements of identification with Gaza’s residents.
Western governments, along with a large number of media outlets, expressed regret and surprise over the number of fatalities. Israel found it very difficult to explain its position: that its actions were justified to prevent a mass incursion over its border.
But despite the condemnations, it appears emotions have been dulled, particularly in the Arab world. Viewers of Arab television have been deluged for the past seven and a half years with scenes of mass killing and terrible suffering. The scenes from Gaza are not exceptional compared to the daily pictures from Syria or Yemen, and for the time being, identification with the Palestinians appears to be just lip service.
The effect of this week’s events will be judged from the Friday sermons at mosques and demonstrations in countries such as Jordan and Turkey, and it depends upon the readiness of Hamas to continue to push the masses toward the border fence, at the price of their lives.