Analysis

Israel Is Relatively Optimistic About Gaza. But in the Long Term, It's Cosmically Pessimistic

One of the powder kegs in the Strip is the strained health services, struggling to care of more than 15,000 wounded since the border protests began in March ■ Meanwhile, a new report claims ISIS lost physical ground, but still drives majority of suicide attacks

Palestinian songbird catcher Hamza Abu Shalhoub, 16, walks at the site of Gaza destroyed airport, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 8, 2018.
REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

This time, the Arab media wasn't exaggerating. Israeli officials are confirming reports that a stern warning has been transmitted to Hamas in the past month not to escalate the violence in Gaza until the general election on April 9. In a message relayed to Hamas via Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel, Netanyahu threatened to respond with tremendous force to any incidents in Gaza. Based on reports of Israel’s progress on the Hezbollah attack tunnels in the north, one can assume that the Egyptians also understand that the Israeli military would have no trouble hitting Hamas hard if so ordered.

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During the Friday border protests two weeks ago, three Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire, while a fourth person died from injuries sustained in an earlier protest. Last week, one teenager was killed. But defense officials believe that for the time being, the promise of a monthly transfer of $15 million from Qatar to pay salaries and aid the needy in Gaza, combined with increased funding for fuel – which has boosted the amount of electricity supplied – could help stabilize the situation there. In the long term, though, this relative optimism is replaced by profound pessimism, with the best-case scenario being for the two sides to reach a "small arrangement" that would lead neither to the lifting of the blockade of Gaza nor the return of the Israeli citizens and the remains of the two soldiers being held in the coastal enclave.

Israeli security sources describe Gaza as being highly volatile and liken the effect of the measures taken to ease the situation there to "giving Tylenol to a cancer patient." Gaza's sorry state of infrastructure and economic problems remain huge and daunting. The gravity of the situation can be seen from an anecdote that has been heard in security discussions: There are hardly any birds left in Gaza, as people unable to buy meat on a regular basis hunt them for food.

One of the main sources of tensions in recent months has to do with the growing burden on Gaza's health system. More than 15,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli army fire during the protests along the border fence, which began last March. Many of the wounded were struck in the legs by sniper fire and hundreds have had legs amputated. The sight of young men limping or getting around with crutches has become very common. Many families also complain of poor medical care due to the hospitals being overwhelmed and underfunded by the Hamas government.

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Nonetheless, Hamas sees the protests as a useful weapon: The casualties are what led to the renewal of the Qatari aid and to a certain easing of the blockade. Perpetuating the friction at the fence also helps keep the fire of the struggle going, and it has caused Israel some embarrassment in the international arena – although the Trump administration hasn’t been all that impressed. For Hamas, these are achievements to be taken seriously.

Is ISIS defeated?

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced that American troops will withdraw from Syria, he said it was because the battle against ISIS has been won. Although the territory that the group held in Syria and Iraq and called an Islamic caliphate has been retaken, Islamic State is far from being history. The caliphate has dissolved; the idea remains.

The rise of ISIS in the summer of 2014, followed by the massive wave of refugees resulting from the ethnic cleansing operations undertaken by rival camps in the war, created a severe chain reaction throughout the world.

ISIS and Al-Qaida-inspired admirers and imitators committed suicide bombings, stabbing and vehicle attacks in numerous locations in the West. Anxiety over the wave of immigration, which reached a peak with the images of Muslim refugees marching along train tracks in Eastern and Central Europe, spurred the rise of far-right political movements whose influence is still being felt. A yearly review of the number of global suicide attacks shows that even in a year in which the organization has been greatly weakened, ISIS' effect is still substantial.

Each year, the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University tracks the number of suicide attacks in the world. Over the past year, the editors of the study, Yoram Schweitzer, Aviad Mandelbaum and Adi Gozlan, counted 292 suicide attacks carried out by 503 terrorists, 83 of them women, which killed 2,840 people and wounded another 5,140. These figures continue the downward trend of the past three years.

The authors write that ISIS "continued also in the past year to be the main party responsible for committing suicide attacks around the world – in spite of its military defeats and the loss of its rule in broad areas of the Middle East."

ISIS and its partners were directly and indirectly responsible for 168 suicide attacks in the past year, or 57.5 percent of the total. Al-Qaida and its allies were behind 65 attacks, which make up 22 percent of the total. In 50 more attacks, 17 percent of the total, the identity of the organization behind them is not clearly known, but there is a high likelihood that they belong to Salafi jihadist stream (like ISIS and Al-Qaida), given the region in which they operated and their ideological connection.

The study found that, in 2018, suicide attacks were committed in 21 countries, compared to 23 countries the previous year. And while in previous years the Middle East – especially Iraq – recorded the highest number of attacks, South and Central Asia – especially Afghanistan –experienced the most attacks in 2018. This region was the site of 113 suicide attacks, 38.5 percent of the total. In Afghanistan alone there were 83 suicide attacks, a 24-percent increase over the previous year.

Nevertheless, the Middle East remains a center of such activity, with 97 suicide attacks in 2018, making up a third of the total. The third main area was Africa, with 2018 seeing 81 attacks there, 27.5 percent of the total.

In Israel, which at the start of the last decade held the top spot for suicide attacks, there were no such attacks in the past year. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, however, did tell the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in November that six suicide attacks had been thwarted over the last year.