The United Nations’ Mideast peace envoy warned the UN Security Council last week that there’s a danger of another war in the Gaza Strip. Nickolay Mladenov’s warning received little attention in Israel amid the local dramas of Yisrael Beiteinu joining the government and the resignation of ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Avi Gabbay.
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But when Avigdor Lieberman enters the defense minister’s office this week, he should take heed of Mladenov’s warning that the situation in Gaza remains “desperate and highly volatile.”
“Recent events clearly demonstrate that the specter of violence looms ominously over the territory. Unless radically more is done to address the chronic realities in Gaza, it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ another escalation will take place,” he said in his periodical briefing to the council.
The circumstances Mladenov describes could be the first security test Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government has to face.
Last week, during the argument over the state comptroller’s recent draft report on the 2014 Gaza war and Habayit Hayehudi’s demand to strengthen the cabinet in its wake, low-impact friction continued along the Gaza border.
Radical Salafi organizations fired rockets and mortar shells into Israel, most of which landed within the Palestinian territory. And Israel’s recent success in discovering two attack tunnels led to mortar fire by Hamas – for the first time since the Israel-Gaza conflict ended in August 2014.
Hamas’ fire was deliberately aimed at open areas, though, avoiding Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the risk of escalating the situation. With Egyptian intervention, a temporary calm was achieved and Cairo opened the Rafah crossing to Palestinians for two days.
Hamas’ situation was apparently so difficult that it immediately agreed to Egypt’s demand to stop firing.
But Egypt didn’t provide a solution to deeper problems between Hamas and Israel – the economic crisis in the Strip and Hamas’ fear that the discovery of the tunnels might strip it of its main means of attack in the next conflict.
Westerners who visit Gaza frequently say the people there, including Hamas officials, are in deep despair due to their economic distress. They compare the atmosphere to that of June 2014, when economic issues facilitated the war’s outbreak.
Hamas’ government couldn’t pay salaries to 42,000 of its employees at the time. The reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had stalled, and Israel thwarted a Qatari attempt to alleviate Hamas’ economic straits.
The comptroller’s draft report said that in the months before the 2014 conflict, the cabinet didn’t seriously discuss the possibility that alleviating economic distress could prevent a war in Gaza. Only after the war did Israel loosen some of the restrictions. It allowed for an increase in the volume of goods into Gaza, a move Israel had refused to consider before the violence erupted.
The tunnel issue is a constant Israeli concern: It must deal with the tunnels because of the future danger they pose. The declaration about a technological solution to avert the danger – which will take up to two more years to complete – must make Hamas’ military wing wonder whether this might be the time to attempt a tunnel abduction, before this course is blocked.
Also, military forces on both sides are training and preparing for war, assuming it will break out eventually. This in itself enhances the danger of war – like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The IDF and Shin Bet security service will discuss these issues with the incoming defense minister. Last week, Lieberman’s recent threat against Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was repeatedly cited. Lieberman said last month that if he was defense minister, he would order Haniyeh’s assassination within 48 hours if Hamas didn’t return the bodies of IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 war.
This was probably an empty threat, to be forgotten amid more pressing security issues and Lieberman’s need to assuage Israeli fears that his appointment isn’t a harbinger of another summer war.
The main concern following Ya’alon’s resignation two weeks ago is the loss of a sober voice at the defense helm. But due to the tension between the sides and the worsening economic situation in the Gaza Strip, perhaps Israel should discuss steps of the opposite nature.
For months, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz has demanded a cabinet discussion on the building of an island off Gaza’s shore, to serve as a port for Gaza under international security supervision. Ya’alon sharply objected to this, while the IDF top brass supported its examination. Perhaps Lieberman will see things differently and be more open to consider Katz’s suggestion.