Analysis

Incendiary Balloons Are Launched at Israel – but Addressed to Egypt

Israel believes Hamas still wants a deal ■ Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem seen by Hamas as Israeli soft spot

Palestinians prepare a flammable object to be flown toward Israel near the Israel-Gaza border on January 18, 2020.
SAID KHATIB / AFP

The renewed plague of incendiary balloons being dispatched from the Gaza Strip into the skies of the Negev, was actually sparked by a dispute between Egypt and the Hamas leadership in the Strip. According to Israel Defense Forces sources, the recent period of relative quiet along the Gaza border – with no violent demonstrations and only few rocket launchings – was violated due to tension that has erupted between Cairo and Hamas.

Any travel abroad on the part of senior Hamas officials from the Strip is conditioned on receipt of a detailed permit from Egyptian intelligence, because their only outlet is via the Rafah border crossing. Familiar with the Egyptian allergy to the Iranians, Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political wing, promised that his trips in the region to raise money for his organization would not include Tehran, but would focus on stops such as Qatar and Turkey.

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But then, on January 3, the Americans assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Haniyeh hastened to participate in Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran – and aroused the anger of the Egyptians, who didn’t see the assassination as a justification for violating a promise to them. Cairo reacted by imposing restrictions on the export of Egyptian gas to the Strip, closing the Rafah crossing for several days, and giving Hamas the cold shoulder.

At the same time, in the Islamist organization, there was anger at the pace of Israeli efforts to ease the harsh economic conditions in the Strip. So, as usual, Hamas responded by releasing restrictions on violent activities. But this time it wasn’t by winking at Islamic Jihad, or turning a blind eye to the activity of other small Palestinian factions, which Israel describes as “wayward.”

Those responsible for releasing the incendiary balloons, one of which was somehow borne last week as far as Ashdod, are clearly Hamas activists. Even Israel isn’t concealing that fact – nor is it hiding this time behind the explanation that the launching of the devices is the work of those wayward factions.

Hamas has a dual objective at present: to convince Egypt to return to the task of mediating an arrangement with Israel and enabling freer movement of goods and people via Rafah; and to spur Israel to continue to progress in the implementation of its goodwill gestures.

It is possible that this week Hamas has identified a soft spot in Israel, which is enabling the organization to ratchet up its pressure. On Wednesday over 40 heads of state will arrive in the country, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin, to participate in a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp. In the view of Hamas, these are circumstances under which Israel will be afraid to exercise great force in the Strip, for fear that an escalation in the security situation could overshadow the official events.

The defense establishment is warning Hamas that the organization is overplaying its hand and is liable to pay a price. The Palestinians, they are reminding them, have already made a mistake when it comes to assessing the extent of Israel's patience and the risks Israeli is willing to take, when they continued with the firing of rockets by Islamic Jihad in early November. That mistaken appraisal led to the assassination of the senior Islamic Jihad commander in the Strip, Baha Abu al-Ata, and to Operation Black Belt.

But meanwhile, Hamas’ demonstrative use of violence, albeit limited in scope, does not change Israel's intelligence assessment that the organization has chosen to take the path of reconciliation. The steps it has taken – canceling the Friday demonstrations at the border (at least until the end of March), ending the nighttime rioting, stopping the use of incendiary balloons and kites (until the past week) – all attest to the Military Intelligence perception of Hamas’ attitude toward an arrangement with Israel.

Even before the weekly demonstrations ended, the number of participants was reduced and the outbreaks of violence declined. The commander of an IDF battalion that serves in the Gaza sector said that his snipers had to open live fire only twice during demonstrations along the separation barrier, between November and December.

Meanwhile, apparently the rehabilitation of infrastructure in the Stirp and the improvement of living conditions there, in light of their sad state, are more important to Hamas than the need to stoke the fire of the struggle against Israel. The Israeli cabinet discussed the situation in the Strip twice earlier this month. No binding decisions were made, but the policy remains in place – a continued easing of conditions in exchange for a continuation of the quiet.

The progress of the agreement is being overshadowed by two main obstacles: In the short term, the pace with which Israel is easing conditions in Gaza does not accord with Palestinian expectations. And in the longer term, Israel will not be able to lift the blockade from the Strip entirely without making progress in the affair of the Israeli hostages and missing soldiers in Gaza – but in that realm, Hamas’ minimum demands are still very far from Israel’s maximum willingness to make concessions.

And yet, there have been certain improvements in conditions in the Strip. The fishing limits have been extended to 15 nautical miles from the coast, the maximum distance since the days of the Oslo Accords; Israel has increased the number of work visas for merchants from Gaza (in effect, mainly laborers) who are entering its territory; the average daily power supply has increased; and infrastructure work in preparation for large-scale projects has begun, including a new electricity line in the Strip and an American field hospital that will be operated next to the Erez checkpoint.

The IDF strongly supports a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian laborers who will be permitted to enter Israel. They are talking about thousands of additional workers, who will gradually receive permits after careful security screening. The political leadership also seems to want to adopt that proposal. Even the opposition of the Shin Bet security service has become somewhat muted, in this regard. It is thus possible that an agreement will be struck about allowing the entry of several thousand additional workers in the coming year, if quiet returns to the area.

At the moment, there is still a degree of tension due to the incendiary balloons, but the Israeli response remains moderate. That can be attributed to the overall circumstances: the government’s priority of dealing with tensions involving Iran and Hezbollah on the northern front, and support for the attempts to reach an agreement in the south. For their part, Israeli media outlets, with some justification, are providing a platform for all the expressions of anxiety and anger among the residents of the Gaza border communities, whenever the sirens are sounded again.

But at the same time, the economic measures being initiated by the government, including many tax benefits, ensure a steady stream of new residents in the border communities and the construction of expansion projects in local moshavim and kibbutzim, even those that are only a few kilometers away from the border (and have a direct view of it).

As far as Gaza is concerned, lately there has been rare agreement between Israel's political and military leaders. But a key question remains: Is MI reading the picture correctly, and is Hamas really ready for a long-term accord in light of its binding ethos, whose guiding principle is violent opposition to Israel, and in light of the opinions of the other Palestinian factions?

Apparently there is need for some degree of positive, optimistic thinking in order to believe that it’s possible to stabilize the situation in the Strip in the long run, with the present (indirect and undeclared) partner on the Palestinian side.