The night of exchanges of fire on the Gaza border indicates a fundamental change in the security situation there. Israel and Hamas are now in a completely different reality than the one that prevailed in the Gaza Strip for almost four years since the end of Operation Protective Edge.
The main achievement of that operation from Israel’s point of view – relative calm that gradually restored a sense of security to those living near the Gaza border – is eroding. It has been replaced by violent demonstrations, riddled with casualties on the Palestinian side, burning kites that torch Israeli fields and groves, and now rockets and mortars.
This is the second time in less than three weeks that Palestinian organizations, led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have launched a unusually high number of rockets and mortar shells into the Negev. On May 29, there were more than 150; on Tuesday night, 45. The way these things develop is familiar; when the time between flare-ups is reduced and the numbers reach such levels, the road to another Protective Edge-type operation gets shorter.
Yet this is not a decree of fate. The summer of 2018 is not identical to the summer of 2014. In both cases, Israeli intelligence believed that Hamas had no interest in starting a war. But four years ago, the flames were actually fanned by fumes from the West Bank – the kidnapping and murder of the three boys in Gush Etzion. When the bodies of the youths were discovered, a war atmosphere prevailed in the public and political arena, which also intensified the government’s responses to the tension with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A week later, the war broke out. This time, despite the anger over the burned fields, the intensity of the pressure is not the same.
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The effort exerted by Hamas to promote the demonstrations near the fence since the end of March has not yielded much benefit. The casualties drew international condemnation and somewhat greased the wheels of the BDS movement, but did not produce practical concessions by Israel. It was the kites, a simpler method, with which Hamas was able to circumvent the IDF’s blocking maneuvers along the fence.
The army, in an attempt to stop the launch of the incendiary kites and balloons, began firing warning shots near the squad members preparing them. When that did not help, the IDF began attacking Hamas strongholds and warehouses. Now Hamas and Islamic Jihad are trying to change the response equation, as they announced Wednesday. From now on, they said, every Israeli air strike will be met with rocket and mortar fire into the Negev.
Some of Hamas’ considerations relate to internal Palestinian concerns. The opening of the Rafah crossing by the Egyptians during Ramadan somewhat eased the pressure (the Egyptians also allowed more than 800 trucks of supplies into the Gaza Strip). But the Hamas leadership in Gaza is concerned with the dire situation of Gaza’s infrastructure, combined with the economic sanctions imposed against it, including the Palestinian Authority’s cuts to the salaries of its own officials in the Gaza Strip. In the coming month, the staff salaries at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) will also be significantly reduced due to U.S. enmity toward the agency.
This is dealing a huge blow to the income of workers in the Gaza Strip. It seems that at least part of Hamas’ message is thus aimed at the PA, through Israel. Hamas believes that Israel, for its own reasons, is not eager for a military confrontation in the Gaza Strip and that the continued military friction might spur Israel to help it to obtain more money, including from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists are attacking the army for being soft on Gazan terror, from the kites to the rockets – as if the government isn’t the one determining the policy toward the Strip. At an officers’ graduation ceremony Wednesday, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were content to make general threats. Expressing public support for the army gives them nothing to build on, of course.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett continues to demand direct hits on the kite launchers, who are “not innocent 8-year-olds,” as he puts it. But the political echelon’s orders remain the same: The north is more important than Gaza, and in Gaza the story is blocking and containment. As long as Netanyahu can avoid it, Israel will not go to war there.
What none of the ministers are talking about out loud is the effort to achieve a political settlement. The Trump administration is dealing with this in addition to looking to present the president’s peace initiative. The pace of violent events in Gaza, however, is overtaking the discussions on rehabilitating Gaza’s infrastructure and may deteriorate into war.
The state comptroller’s report on Protective Edge criticized the government and National Security Council for not formulating an Israeli strategy for the Gaza Strip, for not discussing political alternatives on the eve of the operation, and for not acting to improve the rickety infrastructure in Gaza (which has deteriorated further since then), despite warnings from the coordinator of government activities in the territories.
A senior IDF official who was involved in talks after Protective Edge and has since left the army said he could predict, with high probability, how the indirect negotiations with Hamas would go in Cairo after the next round of fighting. Whatever issues will be discussed then, he said, can and should be discussed now.