Analysis

Hamas Knows Now Is the Best Time to Pressure Israel Into Concessions

But election season also puts Netanyahu in an impossible bind

A Palestinian youth lights up a flare during a demonstration along Israel-Gaza border, March 1, 2019.
AFP

Intensive efforts have been underway for several days to prevent an extensive conflagration on the Palestinian front before the Knesset election on April 9. In the spirit of Henry Kissinger, an Egyptian intelligence delegation has been shuttling between Tel Aviv and Gaza since Tuesday. At the same time, there are attempts to come to a compromise in the Temple Mount crisis, where a dispute is raging over the opening of a building by the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust.

As usual, Friday is a day of special significance for the way crises develop, in Gaza and now in Jerusalem as well. This week is no exception; there is also a demonstration by worshippers planned at the entrances to the Temple Mount that is slated to begin a few hours before the start of the demonstrations on Gazan border.

The pleasant weather is not necessarily good news. In such conditions it is easier to attract many more demonstrators, and then it is difficult for the organizers on the Palestinian side to control the intensity of the clashes. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas does not have immediate plans for an extensive military conflict and apparently the Egyptians don’t have a realistic scheme to achieve what in the past has been called a major arrangement – a long-term cease-fire that would include lifting the blockade and solutions to the problems of the prisoners and the missing Israelis.

>> A botched Gaza raid may rewrite how Israel runs its special operations ■ Hamas seeks concessions from Israel before escalating conflict

On Wednesday evening a 15-year-old Palestinian youth was killed by IDF fire near the fence, a rocket was fired from Gaza into an open area in the western Negev, and an Iron Dome battery was put into action but did not intercept the launch. Israel is also escalating to some extent its attacks in response, against Hamas positions on the border and some of the organization’s camps well inside the Gaza Strip. 

However, all the steps the two sides have taken thus far have been relatively restrained, and the small number of casualties is, for now, preventing things from getting out of control. In Israel there is concern about the possibility that a single military incident initiated by Islamic Jihad on the border could reshuffle all the cards. Recently that organization has been pursuing a policy independent of Hamas, and has been behind a series of incidents of sniper fire at Israeli forces.

Hamas is expecting the Egyptian mediators – this week the Qatari envoy was also brought into the mix – to extract a number of measures from Israel: An immediate increase in the supply of electricity, permission to transfer more money from Qatar, expansion of the fishing zone off the shores of the Gaza Strip, and an easing of the movement restrictions at the crossing points.

In ordinary times, this is a package with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could probably manage. The difficulty stems from the accusations coming both from the right and the left regarding weakness in the face of terror. Netanyahu is in a trap: Any easing of the situation aimed at preventing a conflagration at this time will be depicted by his rivals as concessions and surrender, whereas slipping into a round of violence that lasts for several days, as happened most recently last November, is liable to leave the Israeli public with a bitter sense that nothing has been accomplished, and could also have a negative influence on the election.

The tension in Gaza reverberates in two other focal points of tension – the Temple Mount and the security prisons in Israel, and at the same time it is also influenced by these. In both cases, there are issues considered critical for the Palestinian struggle – Jerusalem and the prisoners. In the past few days Israel and Jordan have been trying to reach an agreement to end the tension created by the opening of the Bab a-Rahma structure, located in the interior of the Temple Mount adjacent to the Golden Gate.

FILE PHOTO: Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh gestures as he delivers a speech in Gaza City January 23, 2018
\ Mohammed Salem/ REUTERS

The Waqf opened the structure in mid-February after it had been closed for 16 years, taking advantage of the fact that the police closure order for the structure had not been extended. Tempers in East Jerusalem are raging over the restraining orders the Israel Police issued to Palestinian activists in advance of Friday’s prayers. Elements associated with Fatah as well those associated with Hamas have called for demonstrations – and there is concern about possible clashes outside the gates to the Temple Mount while mass protest prayers are underway. The intention is clear: to replicate the success of the crisis over the magnetic sensors in 2017 and force Netanyahu to cave in again.

In the prisons, the conflict between the Prison Service and the leaders of the Palestinian security prisoners is continuing, in the wake of the installation of the devices to block cellular phone transmissions. This week Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan attacked the IDF’s opposition to the Prison Service action in view of the situation in Gaza and the approaching election. In a Twitter post, Erdan called the army’s argument “absurd.” The IDF has refrained from responding.

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority is sticking to its decision not to accept the tax monies from Israel, as a protest against the government’s decision to deduct from them about half a billion shekels, or $140 million (as punishment for the economic support the PA gives the security prisoners). President Mahmoud Abbas is insisting on this, even though Israeli intelligence assesses that this will bring about a grave budgetary crisis in the PA within about two months.

Conversations with a number of defense personnel yield the impression that the political constraints of the election period are spurring the government into declarative measures – the cut in the tax monies transferred to the Palestinians, the installation of the cellphone blockers in the prisons, the slide into confrontation on the Temple Mount (which did, however, begin with a provocation on the part of the Waqf). The cumulative effect of these measures is significantly increasing the danger of an explosion.

However, the possibility of persuading Netanyahu to be flexible has decreased as he focuses his attention on the election and the draft indictments against him. And when the heads of the security branches see the prime minister excoriate by name top people in the State Prosecutor’s Office, it presumably doesn’t instill in them the courage to stand too firmly by their professional opinions.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli air strike at an under-construction seaport in the southern Gaza Strip March 7, 2019
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS