On Sunday morning, Israel was getting ready for the end of this round of violence with the Gaza Strip. But, as frequently happens in confrontations with the Palestinians, developments were driven by the number of casualties. After four civilian fatalities on the Israeli side in less than 24 hours, the extent of aerial strikes in the Strip was broadened. For the first time in five years, there was also an assassination of a Hamas operative.
The Palestinians also raised the level of the confrontation. The result was the heaviest day of fighting since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, with the intensity of measures used by the two sides increasing almost hourly. So far, there are no signs of a substantial Egyptian effort to bring about a cease-fire. If efforts don’t begin soon, the clashes could continue for a few more days and even intensify.
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Currently, Israel and Hamas are playing for time: Will the current round end before the beginning of the Ramadan month of fasting on Monday evening, or before Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, or before Independence Day the day after, or before the Eurovision song contest next week? One should not be impressed by dismissive comments made by Knesset and cabinet members with regard to Eurovision; cancellation of the contest would constitute a huge blow to Israel’s image and make it difficult to hold large international events here in the future.
The basic interest of both sides, as noted here on numerous occasions, remains what it was. It appears that the leaders of Hamas and Israel are not interested in war at this point in time. But the dynamics of confrontation are working overtime, reminiscent of the days that elapsed between the kidnaping of the three youths in the Etzion Bloc and the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. Shots fired by Palestinian snipers on Friday led to an aerial strike that killed Hamas activists. The Palestinians responded on Saturday and Sunday with massive rocket barrages and the firing of anti-tank missiles, which resulted in Israeli civilian fatalities. The IDF responded with aerial strikes that toppled office towers and the houses of terror activists, houses containing war materiel. This led to an accelerated and hard-to-stop cycle, which could inadvertently lead to a much broader campaign.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired rockets on a large scale, aiming at mid-range towns such as Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, but not at the Tel Aviv area. The rocketing seems to be coordinated from a joint operations room shared by the two organizations. The intensity of fire increased after the air force attacked several high-rise towers, including a familiar building belonging to one of Hamas’ intelligence branches. Hamas, as it did during last November’s escalation, fired an advanced Kornet missile at a road in Israel, killing a civilian.
The IDF chalked up some preliminary gains, hitting rocket-firing squads, whose survival has been a source of frustration in Israel for several years. In the afternoon, a Hamas operative was killed in a targeted assassination by the air force. Here too, one should hold off before awarding any citations. This was a person responsible for distributing funds arriving from Iran. This will likely have some implications for the actions of the military wing, but ultimately the IDF and Shin Bet assassinated a money changer, perhaps an accountant. This is presumably related to the fact that senior combat commanders were experienced enough to go underground when the escalation began.
Ever since Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his spokesmen and cabinet members have lain low, holding their silence. On Sunday morning, Netanyahu released a short announcement at the beginning of the cabinet meeting, indicating “the continuation of massive attacks.” Other than that, he’s been silent. The pages of his associates on social media are as inactive as the commercial center in Sderot. Here and there, some government representative appears in a TV studio.
In contrast to some claims, Netanyahu does have a clear strategy. He simply doesn’t explain it explicitly. In Gaza, Israel is not interested in war, but it wants to dictate a situation in which Hamas is weakened without being toppled. In the West Bank, the government is doing everything it can, in coordination with the U.S. administration, to damage the standing of the Palestinian Authority. This policy comes with a price.
Throughout the day, the IDF reinforced its deployment near the Strip. Armored Brigade 7 and the Golani Brigade were brought to the south and the Paratrooper Brigade put on alert. Only small numbers of reservists have been called up, focusing on areas needing strengthening, such as aerial defenses and the Home Front Command. Last March similar moves were taken, but the forces were not used. So far, the present deployment does not seem particularly offensive.
What is going on is an armed haggling over conditions for the easing of the siege on Gaza. Hamas’ quite modest demands were not met on time, despite Israel’s commitments. This includes money transfers from Qatar (delayed partly for bureaucratic reasons), making border crossings easier and immediate improvements in the supply of electricity. Pressure is increasing due to the start of Ramadan and Israel’s sensitivity over the holiday and over holding the Eurovision contest without interruptions.
Everything is a direct continuation of this year’s events. The massive Hamas demonstrations along the border fence have presented Israel with a challenge it finds hard to overcome. The IDF has succeeded in preventing mass infiltration, but the large number of Palestinian casualties creates constant tension, sometimes resulting in rocket fire, especially when economic pressure in Gaza increases. The hope is, as usual, that Egyptian mediation will help the two sides climb down from their combative perches. Over the years, Israel is finding that despite the growing ties between the two countries, Cairo has its own agenda in conducting mediation efforts.
In retrospect, relying on Egyptian mediation for ending Operation Protective Edge was somewhat overblown, and in some cases it was Qatar that delivered the goods. The situation is better today, since the person leading the efforts is the head of Egypt’s Intelligence Directorate, Abbas Kamel, whose closeness to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi strengthens his status and ability to abide by his commitments. The heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are in Cairo, talking to the Egyptians. This is convenient for Israel since this way, they can’t completely disappear from the mediation talks.
It’s important to note that every time this happens, the West Bank is in the background. Netanyahu is not managing to completely separate the two arenas. It was the economic sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority on Gaza that pushed Hamas into a corner, leading to the start of the weekly demonstrations last year. The West Bank is now busy with Ramadan preparations. Its residents are not identifying completely with their Gazan brethren. Over the summer, it too will see increasing tension, given the economic pressure by Israel and the U.S. and the crisis over Palestinian prisoners, along with concerns about the Trump peace plan.
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