The quiet on the Gaza border since Monday morning reflects the calming messages from both sides. After the launching of 40 rockets and mortar bombs at Israel from the Gaza Strip and many threats of Israeli retaliation, the firing stopped. Hamas conveyed to Israel, through intermediaries that included the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar, the message that it wanted to return to a full cease-fire.
Israel, for its part, saw to it that an operational plan approved by the Israel Defense Forces calling for an additional escalation of strikes on Hamas military targets was leaked from an inner cabinet meeting Monday. The organization’s leadership in the Gaza Strip chose to put the rockets back in storage (and to accuse Islamic Jihad of firing the last one), but that could turn out to be temporary. Renewed rocket fire from Gaza depends on developments on other fronts – an announcement by the Palestinian Authority of a delay of the parliamentary election and continued clashes in Jerusalem.
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All signs suggest that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is close to announcing the postponement of the Palestinian Legislative Council election, set for May 22. That could happen as early as Thursday. Officially, the PA blames Israel, which refuses to reply to the unofficial request to allow voting in East Jerusalem. In fact, it is clear to everyone that the dispute over voting in Jerusalem is only an excuse. Abbas has heeded, belatedly, the Israeli and American warnings that declaring elections was a serious strategic error on his part that will open the door to a victory by his rivals in Hamas, who are coming much better prepared for the challenge than Fatah. Abbas needs the Jerusalem issue as a pretext to pass on the responsibility.
Israel’s military establishment is preparing for the possibility that an announcement of a cancellation or delay of the elections will cause an outbreak of violence by Hamas. That could include, in addition to clashes with PA security forces in the West Bank, attempts to encourage so-called lone-wolf attacks in Jerusalem and perhaps also rocket fire from Gaza Strip on the Negev. In the background is the joint effect of Ramadan and the coronavirus. In contrast to last year, this year there are no closures and large gatherings have been permitted in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But unlike Israelis, and Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, which continues to claim many victims.
And so a combination of nerves and frustration has been created, added to the already charged atmosphere of the days of fasting. From this volatile mix, at least one main cause of friction has been removed, with the capitulation of the Israel Police and the removal of the barriers around Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate Sunday night. By the way, it turns out that in internal discussions the police representatives also repeated the misleading claim that the Damascus Gate plaza had been blocked during Ramadan in previous years.
This is not the only failure in Israeli organization. The National Security Council devised a plan by which 10,000 Muslims from the West Bank will be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount on Fridays, on condition that they are vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus. But at the moment there is no infrastructure at the West Bank crossings and certainly not at the entrances to the Temple Mount that would allow checks for so-called Green Passes, permitting entry to large gatherings. The decision was made and publicized, but it has no practical meaning.
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Despite the threatening messages, it appears that the politicians and the army are being careful not to spark a clash in the territories. The practical face of the dramatic announcement of beefed-up deployment around the Gaza Strip was the addition of four tanks to one sector. In the West Bank, the army was asked to transfer a Border Police company under its command to Jerusalem, in light of the tensions there. Nearly one-third of the forces now deployed in the West Bank are reserve battalions, whose level of preparedness for the task is usually lower than that of the regular army battalions.
The cooperation between the army and the police has also declined against the backdrop of the terrible year of coronavirus the police experienced. The army brass would also have preferred another period of quiet and acclimation. In the beginning of the month, a new coordinator of government activities in the territories took office and in July, a new chief of the IDF Central Command is to be appointed. As usual, there is quite a gap between the public statements and the true extent of readiness for military conflict.