The most surprising aspect of the recent escalation in the south is the silence of the Israeli leadership. Since Tuesday, at least 10 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Gaza border communities in six different incidents. In one case, a 3-week-old was moderately wounded when her mother ran to a protected space during an alert.
Despite these incidents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was busy returning a prisoner of Zion from Moscow to Israel, didn’t make time to respond. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, the man who pummeled the government mercilessly over its policy in the Strip – until he took up his post – has not yet commented on the issue.
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About a year and a half ago, as education minister and a member of the security cabinet, Bennett sparred with the previous military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, who rejected his demand to order the army to open fire on Gazans sending over incendiary balloons. A few weeks ago, after a prolonged period of quiet, the balloons returned, this time carrying more dangerous explosives. Bennett sufficed with ordering occasional attacks on Hamas targets.
So far, only a minor response has been seen to the rocket fire as well: Airstrikes on specific targets. Meanwhile, the transfer of Qatari money to Gaza, which Bennett adamantly condemned when he was outside the government, has continued under Bennett as defense minister.
These statements aren’t meant to urge the government to strike Hamas and launch a broad military operation, the fourth in 12 years in the Gaza Strip, which would probably end with the same disappointing results as its predecessors. Netanyahu is acting under the influence of exigencies. The northern front with Iran is burning and is more dangerous, while the dubious peace plan presented by Donald Trump last week is rocking the Palestinian boat.
And the government, which is facing the third election within a year in exactly one month, is in no hurry to embark on a war for which there is no public consensus and could take a heavy toll in soldiers’ lives.
But the renewed rocket fire raises doubts about the reassuring interpretation by Military Intelligence regarding the events of recent months. For the past few months, MI has been saying that Hamas’ leaders in Gaza have made a strategic choice for long-term calm.
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After the assassination of Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu al-Ata in November, it was claimed that the main obstacle to an indirect agreement with Hamas had been removed. The army recommended to the government, even publicly, to take significant measures to relieve the situation in Gaza, with the goal of reaching an agreement. Netanyahu did this, though the steps were limited and low-profile for fear of political fallout.
But the pace of the relief has apparently not satisfied Hamas, and the group may also have other considerations. After the balloons, the rockets also returned, at first a drizzle and then more frequently. Even if the smaller Palestinian factions are responsible, it’s hard to believe that Hamas isn’t aware of this or is doing all it can to prevent it. (Hamas, the army concedes, is responsible for the balloons.)
The impression is that contrary to predictions, Hamas is less committed to quiet. Maybe it isn’t ready for it. In any case, it’s clear that Hamas is preserving room to maneuver, using limited violence. This is a dangerous gamble for the organization; sooner or later Israel might feel obligated to respond more harshly. It can’t be ruled out that Israel’s attacks could become more aggressive in the near future.
In the background the bomb the Americans dropped last week, the “deal of the century,” is still ticking. With the Palestinian Authority bashing Trump’s initiative, considered an outright pro-Israel plan, Hamas can’t let itself lag behind.
Meanwhile, after the Americans came to their senses at the last minute, Netanyahu’s intention to bring a proposal to the cabinet Sunday to annex the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlements was taken off the agenda. But with the accumulation of developments, it’s hard to predict quiet in the near future either in the West Bank or Gaza. The Palestinian arena is roiling again.