Analysis

Unusual Alliances, Conflicting Interests Behind Tensions in Israel's South

An exceptional number of incidents involving Hamas, the IDF and an ISIS affiliate are making the decision makers on both sides twitchy. Incorrect handling of the crisis now could trigger another war.

Palestinians running for cover as smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip, February 6, 2017.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

While the political talk in Israel over the past few days has focused on criminal investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his upcoming trip to Washington, security tensions have been increasing. And under certain circumstances, these could develop into a real escalation.

It is happening on the complicated southern front where Israel and Hamas are facing off, with additional significant involvement by – and often temporary alliances with – two other players: Egypt and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (the Islamic State-affiliated group formerly known as Wilayat Sinai).

What gets reported in the media is mostly the incidents that cannot be hidden, like rocket fire or the results of a mysterious blast in a tunnel. But below the surface lies a web of variously conflicting and intersecting interests.

Faulty management of the crisis could lead to a big blow-up – as happened in the summer of 2014 – though at present none of the key players seem to want such an outcome.

A summary of recent events: On Monday morning, a rocket fell in open land in the northern Negev, and shots from light weaponry were apparently fired from Gaza toward Kibbutz Kissufim.

The rocket fire was attributed to a radical Salafi organization, and was seen as an intended show of defiance against Hamas for arresting and torturing some of its people.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for any fire against it that emanates from Gaza. It responded with a series of strikes on numerous Hamas targets, which somehow resulted, yet again, in only a few minor casualties.

On Tuesday, two cabinet members – Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant – threatened that there could be another war in Gaza within a few months.

On Wednesday evening, a barrage of rockets were fired at Eilat from Sinai – for the first time since the summer of 2014. The Iron Dome defense system intercepted three rockets, while a fourth fell in an open area. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the rocket fire.

A few hours later, there was an explosion in a tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah. Two Palestinians were killed and five others wounded. Hamas announced it was due to an Israeli airstrike, and Gaza security sources said it came in response to the rocket fire on Eilat. The Israeli army denied carrying out the attack.

Flares fired by Israeli forces to check the border are seen over Gaza City, February 6, 2017.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

All of this is happening at a time when there has been a surprising rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt – after years of open hostility on the part of the generals in Cairo toward the leadership in Gaza, whom they view as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Following the military coup in Cairo in the summer of 2013, the Egyptians have consistently tightened the noose around Gaza. The deliberate closure of the Rafah crossing, combined with the slow Israeli response to Hamas’ economic crisis, contributed to the war’s outbreak a year later.

Since then, Israel has kept on fanning the tension between Cairo and Gaza, in part by presenting Egypt with (credible) intelligence about secret collaboration between Hamas and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

But there has been change in recent months. The Egyptians have eased the pressure on the Rafah crossing, and Hamas security delegations have been traveling to Cairo to discuss relations between the two sides.

A few days ago, Egyptian and Palestinian officers were filmed on a joint tour of the Rafah border area, and this was accompanied by Hamas vows to maintain quiet on the border; to keep reining in the Salafi organizations in Gaza; and to stay away from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai.

Against this backdrop, there seems to be movement in the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas over a potential prisoner exchange. Last week, Haaretz reported that Israel was holding the mentally ill brother of a senior Hamas official: Bilal Razaina was arrested last November, after he crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

In response, Palestinian sources said Hamas had rejected the offer to free him in return for a missing Israeli, Abera Mengistu (who crossed into Gaza in September 2014). Last week, Al Jazeera reported that a broader deal had fallen through. It seems Hamas is still looking for a second “Gilad Shalit agreement,” in which a large number of Palestinian prisoners will be released in exchange for five Israelis: the bodies of the two dead soldiers from the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 (1st Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul), along with the three Israeli citizens currently missing in Gaza.

The negotiations also included discussions on the release of the prisoners freed in the 2011 Shalit deal who were subsequently rearrested in June 2014, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.

Despite the public’s disappointment with the Israel Defense Forces’ performance during the Gaza war, the situation has remained relatively quiet in the Strip for the past 30 months. Since the end of the fighting, 45 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, and all, except for four, landed in open areas. One soldier has been wounded near the Gazan border during this period, but no civilians have been wounded or killed.

There is no doubt that Hamas is busy rearming and preparing itself for the next war. But a distinction must be made between the potential for real damage stemming from the renewed digging of attack tunnels into Israel, and the steps Hamas is taking to demonstrate its control – such as the construction of a line of observation posts along the border fence.

This is a move whose tactical usefulness to Hamas is known and limited. The fear it has engendered among the residents of communities near the Gaza border seems excessive. In addition, any discussion of the matter ignores the fact that the IDF is also training and preparing its forces for the next conflict in Gaza.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ firing of rockets at Eilat could serve two purposes. First, quite clearly, is revenge against Israel, which the organization blames for providing offensive and intelligence support to Egypt for its Sinai battles. The second reason could be to pass on a message to Hamas concerning its rapprochement with Egypt. Because of the proximity of the incidents, it’s unlikely that the tunnel blast in Rafah is related to the firing of rockets at Eilat. It could also be the result of an accident, or revenge for an as-yet-unknown reason.

The bottom line, though, is that an exceptional number of incidents have accumulated, raising the level of tension for decision makers on both sides. The aggressive statements coming from the Israeli side, even if they generate a slight political profit, will not help calm matters.

It would appear that the clear Israeli interest is to preserve its power of deterrence and delay the next war in Gaza for as long as possible. Any other policy would lead to an unnecessary entanglement in a long war, which, even if it ultimately led to the downfall of Hamas – as a number of ministers are pushing for – would still drag the IDF into the Gaza swamp for many years to come.