Gaza Escalation: Hamas Signals Israel to Lay Off Tunnels

Hamas is wavering between the future threat of losing its tunnels and the immediate risk of taking action.

Israeli soldiers walk by a tank near the Israel-Gaza border on Wednesday, May 4, 2016.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

The shooting incidents on the Gazan border – five in the last 24 hours – reflect the worst escalation since the end of the last war between Israel and Hamas in August 2014. Also, for the first time since the war, Hamas’ military wing appears to be directly or indirectly behind firing the mortar shells and light ammunition at IDF troops.

The incidents appear to be a Hamas attempt to warn Israel to go no further with its search for tunnels that the organization has dug under the border into Israeli territory.

For more than a year and a half after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Israeli officials have been saying repeatedly that the IDF dealt Hamas a worse blow than ever before and managed to inhibit the organization. Not only isn’t Hamas firing into Israeli territory itself, the officials said, but the number of incidents on the Gaza border is the lowest in more than a decade.

Also, when a smaller Palestinian organization opens fire at Israel, Hamas hastens to stop it, they noted. This opinion was last expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday after visiting a tunnel whose discovery was reported last week.

Nobody has taken responsibility for the last shooting incidents. But their relative intensity and their targeting of IDF troops near the fence near Kibbutz Holit, where the last tunnel had been found, apparently indicates that Hamas is responsible for the shooting. Even if Hamas blames some Salafi group this time, it’s hard to believe that five incidents could take place in 24 hours without the approval of the Strip’s sole ruler.

The events seem to be a game of signals between Israel and Hamas, with each side resetting the balance of terror drafted after the 2014 conflict. As reported here on Wednesday, Hamas knows Israel has discovered one of its tunnels and sees the other activity being carried out in part on the Gazan side of the border fence.

Hamas also hears declarations that within two years, Israel may be in possession of technology to trace and destroy the tunnels. In these circumstances, Hamas is wavering between the future threat of losing the tunnels, and the immediate risk of taking action.

The latter will almost certainly lead to a new armed conflict that would cause Hamas heavy losses and another humanitarian disaster for the Gaza Strip’s population. At this point Hamas still appears to be undecided. The shooting from the Strip is a warning signal, not a declaration of war.

Israel and Hamas reached an Egyptian-brokered agreement between 2009 and 2012, under which Israel was entitled to carry out defense measures within the Gaza Strip, up to 500 meters on the Gazan side of the fence. At Egypt’s request after the 2012 conflict, Israel agreed to narrow the buffer zone to 100 meters.

This decision may have made it easier for Hamas to dig the 33 tunnels the IDF located near the fence during the 2014 conflict. Now Hamas appears to want to deter Israeli military activity in the 100-meter zone as well.

Israel is aware of the possible repercussions of its recent activity, but apparently cannot avoid it if it locates other tunnels already dug under its territory.

Meanwhile, the living conditions in the Gaza Strip have worsened. In the last month the IDF stopped cement deliveries to the Strip, after it transpired yet again that Hamas was using a considerable part of the cement to build its tunnels.

But stopping the deliveries also meant stopping the rehabilitation of thousands of homes that had been destroyed in the last war, and thousands of Gazan construction laborers have been left without work. These circumstances too could bring another military conflict closer.