Analysis

Israeli Army Believes Hamas Willing to Negotiate Deal

In contrast, the Israeli government is much less optimistic as it faces growing pressure over burning kites launched from Gaza

A Palestinian demonstrator runs along the Gaza Strip-Israel border fence during a demonstration east of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, June 5, 2018.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Naksa Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War, passed more quietly along the Gaza border than Hamas had initially planned. By last week it was clear the organization’s leadership thought it would be hard to get an impressive number of people to demonstrate along the fence Tuesday. Most of the efforts will be directed to this coming Friday, when the Iranian authorities actually mark “Jerusalem Day.”

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According to the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas is conducting its struggle by various means: demonstrations; large numbers of incendiary kites (whose results – large swaths of fields burned in the Gaza-area communities – have made a deep impression on Israeli public opinion); encouraging squads to cross the border fence to damage military equipment, and from time to time rocket and mortar fire.

As far as the rockets go, it seems Hamas is playing a double game. After two months of demonstrations and deaths without any rocket fire, Islamic Jihad changed the rules of the game a week ago with a day of combat in which close to 150 rockets and mortar shells were fired. The attacks on the Negev, which began as a response to the killing of three Islamic Jihad members by IDF fire, was joined by Hamas and smaller Palestinian factions. The IDF responded with a series of attacks on military sites linked to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but was careful not to cause casualties. Last Wednesday morning a cease-fire was declared, but it was violated by the firing of six rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip over the weekend.

Gazans send fire-starting kites into Israel; army uses drones for interception

Since then, quiet has returned, and Hamas has sent messages to Israel through Egypt over the past two days that it has arrested activists in “rogue” factions involved in the projectile fire (including Fatah’s military wing in the Gaza Strip, which has long ceased to take orders from the organization’s West Bank leadership). However, the defense establishment suspects that Hamas encourages firing at its convenience, mainly in an attempt to forge a new “deterrence equation” so that Israel will hesitate to harm its military sites.

According to this assessment, Hamas is still looking for an arrangement in the Gaza Strip that will ease its economic troubles and infrastructure problems and still wants to avoid a broad military confrontation. The organization, however, is now more prepared to risk going to the brink of confrontation in a manner that undermines the relative stability that had prevailed before, putting the sides in the most perilous situation since the end of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

Official Israel continues to avoid any discussion of a long-term arrangement for the situation in the Gaza Strip. It denies the existence of a cease-fire, which was formulated with its consent, and argues that there is no basis for discussing a hudna (prolonged cease-fire) with an enemy that does not recognize its right to exist.

New bugaboo: Burning kites

Meanwhile Israel is having trouble coping with the burning kites. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Monday that some 600 incendiary kites and balloons had been launched from Gaza, two-thirds of them intercepted by the IDF. While the army continues to look for more effective solutions against the kites, politicians are being criticized about the burned fields and nature spots. Speaking at a ceremony inaugurating a new municipal hotline in Sderot on Tuesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said, “Only the IDF can eliminate the arsonists,” and demanded that the kite launchers be treated like terrorists.

This is the first evidence of the pressure being brought to bear on the government about this. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a move that has little practical value, announced that he has asked about offsetting tax revenues paid to the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the damage caused by the kites. But the financial damage is estimated at only NIS 5 million (the damage to morale is much worse) and the PA in any case is in confrontation with Hamas. After all, some of the economic problems in the Strip stem from the PA’s decision to cut the funds transferred to it.

Compared to the political echelon, the IDF is more optimistic about the chances of coming to an arrangement over Gaza. The continued conflict in its current format is likely to lead to a broad military confrontation, even when there is no mutual interest in one. Whether that happens depends mainly on the number of casualties and possible loss of life on the Israeli side, which would of course lead to pressure on the government to respond.

Hamas, according to the intelligence services, is willing to reach an agreement. Its economic and strategic predicament could make possible a discussion of potential concessions that were taboo in the past: halting the rocket fire and tunnel digging, a commitment to stop arms smuggling at the crossings, and perhaps even curbing the organization’s violent efforts from the West Bank.

Could this be serious? The IDF believes it is, and that the time which will pass before the next escalation can be exploited to complete the construction of the anti-tunnel wall along the border (expected by the second half of 2019) and to grant another break to the Israeli residents of the Gaza area. On the other hand, Lieberman said Tuesday that those who are seeking to improve the humanitarian situation in the Strip “are spreading illusions” if they think that would solve the violence along the fence. “Without a solution to the issue of the MIAs and the missing [civilians], there will be nothing. Let everyone scream and everyone shout,” he said.

In the meantime, there are no signs of serious, or even indirect, negotiations. The main reason for this is political: The current right-wing government fears being portrayed as weak vis-à-vis Hamas. Under these circumstances – reservations about war on the one hand, and fear of looking soft on the other – Israel is practically decreeing the continuation of the existing situation until the inevitable escalation.