Analysis |

Renewed Gaza Rocket Fire Could Serve Hamas and Test Israel's Policy

Israel understands toppling Hamas will not usher in a better alternative ■ Syria deal likely to push Iranians back from border, but not from entire country

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An explosion is seen in Gaza City after an airstrike by Israeli forces late on June 2, 2018.
An explosion is seen in Gaza City after an airstrike by Israeli forces late on June 2, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The unofficial cease-fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip came into force (also unofficially) on Wednesday morning, but the firing from Gaza has actually resumed. Between Saturday evening and early Sunday morning, rockets have been fired intermittently from the coastal enclave.

Six rockets were fired, the Israeli military spokesman's office reported. Four of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. In response to the rocket fire, the Israel Air Force attacked targets at three Hamas compounds in Gaza. Neither side reported casualties.

The Israeli explanation for the Palestinian weapons fire, which is a violation of the agreement reached under Egyptian mediation, is that "renegade organizations" are currently behind it, meaning jihadi Palestinian factions that are not subject to Hamas' authority. The sudden problem regarding the control of Gaza by Hamas needs to be taken with a measure of skepticism.

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For close to two months, during which more than 100 Palestinians demonstrating along the Israeli border with Gaza have been killed by Israeli army fire, not a single rocket was fired from Gaza. The firing only began last Tuesday, when Islamic Jihad fired barrages of rockets in reaction to the killing of three of its members by the Israeli army two days before. Then Hamas joined in firing. Israel attacked in response and a cease-fire only came following Egyptian intervention.

How did the shift come about from Hamas having complete control over the firing as well as over the intensity of the friction in the border demonstrations to its difficulty in reining things in? It at least raises the question as to whether the renewal of the rocket fire currently serves the interests of Hamas' leadership.

There could be two aspects to this: one as an additional element in the confrontation with Israel, in addition to the demonstrations and the dispatch of Molotov cocktails on kites over the border into Israel, which have set large expanses of Israeli fields near the Gaza border on fire. The second aspect is as part of a new balance of deterrence, which has it that if Israel deploys weapons fire against the organizations' military targets (Hamas bases deep in the territory, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions along the Israeli border), it will respond with rocket and mortar fire at Israeli communities.

Talk of an Israeli victory in the round of blows last Tuesday were baseless, just as claims of a humiliating defeat were. In practice, the Israeli government and the army general staff headquarters don't currently want a war in Gaza out of concern that toppling the Hamas regime there would not lead to a better alternative in the territory and would cost Israel heavily.

In addition, these Israeli officials are now focused on efforts at arrangements to have Iran and Shi'ite militia forces withdraw from southern Syria. It is also reasonable that Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with Iranian encouragement, would actually be interested in friction in Gaza. It hard to believe, on the other hand, that the groups in Gaza would currently want an overall confrontation. The constellation of forces between the sides is known and it appears that Hamas' first priority is easing Gaza's economic situation. Responsibility for the dismal reality there also falls on Hamas, as the group in control of the enclave.

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But the tangle of these considerations and aims is rather difficult to maneuver. The risk entailed in the continued fire is that sooner or later one of the sides will incur real losses. And then the leadership's ability to control the height of the flames will face a greater challenge.

A window of opportunity has opened for the Netanyahu government to come to an arrangement with Hamas that may make a long-term cease-fire possible in return for a significant easing of the economic siege on Gaza. That is an achievable goal, the Israeli army believes, as noted by a senior officer in a talk to journalists on Thursday. In the absence of an arrangement, continued firing could lead to an eruption, contrary to the Israeli government's goal.

In the north

In the north, contacts on an arrangement to have Iran and the Shi'ite militias withdraw from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights have not yet seen success, despite a series of reports in the Arab media (and to a lesser extent in Israel). But the outlines of a plan for an arrangement are taking shape and becoming clearer: Russia is prepared to remove the Iranians and their militias from the border, perhaps even as far as the Damascus-Suwayda highway, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the Israeli Golan Heights. But Moscow is interested to have Israel agree to the return of Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces to the border with Israel in return for the Iranian pullback.

Israel has doubts when it comes to its new-old neighbors. In addition, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently repeated the demand that Iran and the militia forces be removed from anywhere in Syria. That is a demand that the Kremlin has not responded to at this point and it is doubtful that the Russians would accept because it could involve them in a direct confrontation with Tehran. In the meantime, Syrian President Assad is creating deliberate confusion himself with his claim that Iran has only "advisers" in Syria, but no soldiers at all.

After reviewing the range of reports and after consulting with several Israeli sources, it appears that an opportunity has been created here to remove the Iranians from southern Syria in the near future. A total withdrawal from all of Syria would be a lot more difficult to achieve. One possibility is that a partial arrangement be obtained, as it was last November, through an agreement among Russia, the United States and Jordan – and for Israel to be able to declare that it is not a party to it and therefore is not bound by its provisions.

Then too, it remains to be seen if Israel will act against Iranian targets deep in Syria after Iran's presence there receives a renewed stamp of approval of sorts from the Russians. On Sunday, at the beginning of the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "Israel will continue to retain its freedom of action against Iran establishing itself in any area in Syria."

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