The exchanges of blows between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have been fairly cautious so far. It’s a slightly odd war: Despite the rockets and incendiary balloons being launched into Israel and the retaliatory nighttime attacks by the Israel Defense Force in the Strip, there have been no fatalities and no serious injuries. The only casualties are four Islamic Jihad militants who were killed Monday, presumably in a “work accident” while handling a rocket or explosives.
In the case of the Palestinians, the rockets and exploding balloons are not precision-guided weapons, even though it’s obvious that the militant organizations operating in the Strip have no problem hitting the heart of Ashkelon or central Sderot with their rockets when they want to do so. In the case of Israel, the caution is unmistakable. Tanks fire on Hamas positions and Israel Air Force strikes on bunkers and arms stores are carried out at times the army is certain the targets will be unoccupied.
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The escalation of the past few weeks in the Gaza Strip was aimed at a single moment, the expected arrival in the territory Tuesday night of Mohammed al-Emadi, the coordinator of Qatari humanitarian projects in the enclave. Emadi was scheduled to bring the monthly delivery of cash. The Hamas government wants to increase the amount (to $45 million or even $60 million, according to various reports). Hamas also hopes to obtain a promise of advance payments of months or even years.
In the background are additional developments affecting the tensions with Israel. A Hamas internal election is scheduled for November, in which Khaled Meshal is making a bid, from his place of exile in the Persian Gulf, to return to the leadership. And last week four Gazans tested positive for the coronavirus in what is thought to be the first incidence of community transmission there. The few people returning to the Strip from abroad are placed under strict quarantine for several weeks in order to keep the virus out of the highly crowded territory. Cameras are placed outside the homes of those in quarantine, a few of whom have been caned for violating isolation. The government, which is justifiably worried about the possibility of an outbreak, imposed a full, 48-hour lockdown Tuesday in the hope of stopping COVID-19 from spreading.
Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in Israel, the latest escalation did not begin for no reason, just because Hamas was bored. For several months the Israeli leadership allowed the situation in the Strip to heat up gradually until the violence came to a boil. In January, before the coronavirus reached the region, there was actually considerable progress in the indirect contact between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt.
The Palestinians stopped the violent marches along the border with Israel on Fridays and moved to curb the violence. In exchange, the interim government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved wide-ranging economic concessions. Hamas was promised a long series of internationally-funded infrastructure projects, together with the lifting of Israeli restrictions and prohibitions. In addition, Israel allowed around 7,000 Palestinians, most of them laborers (though in Israel they were officially considered traders and businesspeople), to enter the country for work.
The start of the pandemic in March disrupted these measures. Hamas, fearing that the virus might spread from Israel into the Strip, stopped the laborers from leaving and closed the gates of Gaza, relying on Israeli medical advice. At the same time, some of the foreign project managers left the Strip in the face of the coronavirus.
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When the frustration in the Strip over the stalled projects and the deteriorating economic situation increased, Hamas allowed the violence to resume. Its activists began launching explosive balloons over the border fence. Other militant factions fired rockets. For Israelis living near the border, who had enjoyed several rare months of quiet, it was a frightening reminder of the bad old days. The rocket alerts returned, as did the brush fires. Only the intentionally early harvests of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the area this year saved their farmers from greater losses.
In addition to its punitive strikes, Israel responded with economic sanctions: Fuel deliveries were disrupted, reducing the electricity supply to homes to four to eight fours a day. New restrictions on fishing zones has meant a significant loss of income for tens of thousands of Gazans.
The Israeli defense establishment is divided over the steps to take now. As usual, the IDF and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories recommend lifting restrictions, including the resumption of allowing Gazan laborers into Israel, in hopes of easing the pressure. And as usual, the Shin Bet security service is against this, and it warns that the terror organizations will try to exploit the entry of Palestinians into Israel in order to gather intelligence for future terror attacks.
Hamas isn’t making impossible demands on Israel. Apart from the internal disagreement over letting in laborers again, the necessary economic concessions are doable from the perspective of the Israeli defense establishment. It appears that one of the reasons for the difficulties in the negotiations actually has to do with the character of the Egyptian mediation. Cairo has its own agenda, and it’s in no hurry to pressure the parties into an agreement that will guarantee long-lasting quiet. In addition, there’s still the problem of the remains of the two Israeli soldiers and the two (live) Israeli civilians that Hamas is holding in the Strip. The inability to solve that crisis, even six years after the end of Operation Protective Edge, is exacerbating the situation.
And still, it seems that there is room for Israel to move, in coordination with Qatar, to prevent an expansion of the violence, which no one wants, especially during a pandemic. President Reuven Rivlin hit the mark when he said recently, in reference to Gaza, “It doesn’t matter who you’re talking with, what matters is what we’re talking about.” Israel and Hamas have something to talk about, with the goal of reaching a long-term cease-fire. The government isn’t doing it, whether because it doesn’t feel pressured to act or – and this is worse – because somebody in Jerusalem finds it convenient to keep Gaza as an arena that can be ignited fairly easily under the appropriate political circumstances.