The location of Hamas' monitors during the protest Wednesday at the Gaza border fence reflected some of the difference with the situation over the weekend. On Saturday, the organization’s “restraint forces” were positioned at a safe distance behind the demonstrators and let them storm the fence.
This time, after the incident where a Hamas man shot and critically wounded a member of the Border Police, the monitors were placed close to the fence. The number of attempts to breach the barrier decreased accordingly, even though some of the protesters reached it.
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It seems the Israeli warnings were heard in the Strip. The army ordered a reinforcement of the forces along the fence in advance of the demonstration east of Khan Yunis in the south of Gaza. It also deployed sharpshooting teams and made sure to send messages through the media of its intent to take a tough stand.
In the background was the wounding of the Border Police officer, Barel Hadaria Shmueli. The army was humiliated when footage of the shooting revealed that the forces were insufficiently prepared and Shmueli was shot point-blank by a Palestinian who then escaped.
The justified anger of Shmueli's family was immediately converted into political coin. The agitated father’s attack on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a phone call, and later on Southern Command chief Eliezer Toledano when he visited the wounded young man was leveraged to criticize the inability of the government and army to protect fighters’ lives against the enemy.
As expected, the criticism led Wednesday to a more organized and aggressive deployment against the Palestinians. But the army still seemed to be taking care not to get dragged into too much of anything, out of concern that another eruption could mar Bennett’s visit to the United States.
According to the military, sharpshooters weren't used and relatively few Palestinians were wounded by the riot control methods. Israel’s main problem remains: Hamas seeks to fully return to the situation before May 10, the day it fired six rockets at the Jerusalem area and got Operation Guardian of the Walls in return.
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Hamas continues to gamble to get the last third of the $10 million monthly grant from Qatar that Israel is vetoing because it's earmarked for Hamas civil servants. And it wants to force Israel to lift the restrictions on the flow of goods through the border crossings that it imposed at the end of the operation.
To a large extent, Hamas is conducting a zero-sum game. If all its demands aren't met, it risks a resumption of the fighting. Bennett must be aware of the possibility that Hamas' daring could drag him into another military operation at a time when his government isn't yet stable and hasn't fully met the challenges of passing the state budget and tackling the coronavirus crisis.
Michael Milstein, the former head of the Palestinian desk in Military Intelligence's research division, described this well in a document published on the website of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Recent advances in the transfer of two-thirds of the Qatari money have generated a feeling in Israel that a long-term settlement in the Gaza Strip can soon be reached, Milstein wrote.
Still, Hamas has returned to staging violent demonstrations and launching incendiary balloons. Yahya Sinwar, the organization’s leader in Gaza, wants to force concessions on Israel without paying a heavy price.
To him, the implication is that for Hamas, the May fighting hasn’t really ended. We're still at the stage where the Palestinians are trying to influence the result. This conclusion by Milstein, which seems very reasonable, casts a pretty gloomy light on the praise the army heaped on itself at the end of the operation, and especially on the promises of five years of quiet in its wake.
The alternative explanation being supplied by the military – that Sinwar is in a messianic and irrational mindset and is therefore unwilling to accept the logic that Israel is trying to impose on him – isn’t particularly convincing. It’s advisable to view Sinwar soberly rather than slide into apologetics that mix intelligence and public relations. Hamas may try to test Israel very soon. It's better to prepare for this possibility, even if it’s very undesirable.
Nor are the veiled threats against the Hamas leader’s life particularly helpful. If you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. And Israel's assassinations in the past – of Ahmed Yassin, Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Ahmed Jabari – show that Hamas doesn’t abandon it combative path when its leaders are harmed.