Analysis

A Day of Battle in Gaza: Israel Tries to Change Rules of the Game Against Hamas

In a new twist, Hamas has claimed responsibility for rocket fire. Israel has tried to break this new ‘balance of deterrence’ via its massive assault over 24 hours, but for now there is still no war in sight

Israeli soldiers patrolling the city of Sderot on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border on July 14, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The current confrontation on the Gaza border doesn’t seem at the moment to be the opening salvo of another war between Israel and Hamas.

It seems more like an Israeli attempt to force a change in the rules of the game in the south, while indirect negotiations through the Egyptians led to a cease-fire announcement by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that Israel has agreed to.

Israeli army attacks launching pad that was used to fire mortars at Israel from Gaza.Haaretz/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit

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The fact that so far there have been relatively few casualties in Israeli strikes on Gaza, and that Hamas has directed most of its rocket fire on Gaza-area communities, shows that the two sides are still setting limits on themselves. For the time being, this is preventing a deterioration into a broader military confrontation.

A deterioration also depends on the number of casualties, which will grow as pressure mounts on the leaders on both sides to approve more offensive measures. On Saturday evening, three people in Sderot were wounded by a rocket and the Israel Defense Forces bombed a high-rise building in the Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.

The incidents since Friday night are part of an escalation that began at the end of March with the Hamas-led weekend protests along the border fence. Since then there has been no real letup in clashes between the sides. In the past two months, incendiary kites and balloons have replaced the demonstrations at the fence as the main point of friction between the Palestinians and the IDF.

In Israel, frustration is mounting against the inability to stop the ensuing fires, an average of 20 a day in recent weeks. Although the airborne firebombs haven’t killed anyone, they’ve severely eroded the sense of security of border-area residents while undermining the Netanyahu government’s image as forcefully addressing terror threats.

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When the IDF tried to stop the fires by punitive airstrikes on Hamas sites, the group responded with massive rocket and mortar fire, an effort that has repeated four times since the end of May. Hamas has thus gone beyond its previous approach. For more than four years now, since the end of the 2014 Gaza war, the organization has usually not fired missiles itself. Sometimes, when there has been a need to let off steam in the Strip, Hamas has looked the other way when smaller groups fired missiles.

Bombing two attack tunnels

But now Hamas has claimed responsibility for the missiles. Israel is trying to break this new “balance of deterrence” via its massive assault over 24 hours.

The impetus was an incident at the border fence Friday night. The deputy commander of an Armored Corps battalion was moderately wounded by shrapnel from a grenade lobbed at him. On Saturday morning the IDF attacked a number of sites that had been used by Palestinians to build and distribute incendiary kites.

More importantly, the air force also bombed two attack tunnels near the border on the Palestinian side. This is part of efforts to compromise Hamas assets ahead of a possible clash later on. In the past nine months, 11 tunnels have been uncovered and bombed on both sides of the border, as Israel continues construction on a tunnel obstacle to be completed next year.

Early Saturday morning, after Hamas responded with a massive barrage of mortar shells and rockets, the air force struck again – some 40 targets in the Strip. The most significant of these was the Hamas battalion command in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, which was completely destroyed. But the organization had apparently evacuated its command posts Friday night after the first strikes began; there were no casualties in the assault on the battalion command.

By Saturday evening more than 80 mortar shells and rockets had been launched at Israel. Most of those that threatened civilians were shot down by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

But here too, restraint by both the Palestinians and Israel can be seen. The rockets and mortar shells have been launched from areas up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border. Therefore the mortar shells and Katyusha rockets are the 107-millimeter variety, not larger and longer-range weapons. Sderot and the other Gaza-area communities sustained heavy fire, but so far there has been no missile fire at the big cities in the south: Be’er Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

These moves all correspond to what’s happening in the negotiations. On Saturday morning, Egyptian intelligence began speaking by phone with Israeli security officials and senior Hamas officials in an attempt to broker a cease-fire. In the background a broader move has been simmering for quite some time now. Hamas very much needs money and more freedom of movement in the Strip.

Saturday evening saw a decline in the number of missiles launched from Gaza.

‘Braking period’ for a cease-fire?

The IDF attributed this to Hamas’ desire to end the current round of hostilities, and sure enough, Hamas announced a cease-fire. Egyptian intelligence officials and the UN secretary-general’s envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, spent most of Saturday on the phone to both sides to achieve a cease-fire.

Egypt has pressured Hamas to stop the missiles, saying that if they persist, Israel’s response could be fierce and lead to a general deterioration. Israel is waiting to see whether Hamas is serious about imposing its new position on its grass-roots activists and those of the various Palestinian factions, as mediators have claimed.

In similar circumstances in the past, a “braking period” of a few hours has been needed – and sometimes a day or two – for a full cease-fire to go into effect. Israel is demanding that Hamas pledge to stop its rocket and mortar fire, and has also demanded that Hamas stop the airborne firebombs, but it’s unclear whether the organization will do so.

Israel in principle is open to discussions on this, but has conditioned it on the return of its civilians held captive and missing soldiers. Hamas for its part expects dozens of operatives to be released – people whom Israel re-arrested in the West Bank in 2014 after they were released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. A lack of progress on this matter is the main obstacle in an agreement that would grant significant relief measures to Gaza.

Meanwhile, negotiations on a broader agreement seem at an impasse, and Hamas, amid the overall situation in Gaza, is under enough pressure to continue to launch incendiary kites and rockets. Hamas’ leaders know that this could embroil them in a war where the damage to the Strip could be heavier than in 2014.

Despite the similarity between the two periods, Israel hasn’t yet necessarily reached the point of launching another operation against Gaza.

In the background we’ll hear bellicose statements by the prime minister and other ministers; if these remarks don’t impress Hamas, at least they’ll make a political impression at home. (The most recent escalation, by the way, led to the cancellation of a support rally by Zionist Union in the Gaza border area Saturday night.)

And yet, it would be better in the meantime not to be taken in by cabinet members’ hawkish rhetoric. When Israel sought war in Gaza in the past it responded more forcefully.

Suffice it to mention the controversial air assault that opened the Gaza war of the winter of 2008-09. The Olmert-Barak government sent the air force to attack the closing ceremony of a Hamas police training course. Some 90 Hamas activists were killed in the attack on the parade ground; the number of dead on the war’s first day totaled around 270. That’s still a far cry from the events of recent days in Gaza.