Analysis

Not Just Flaming Kites: What Could Really Ignite Next Round of Israel-Hamas Violence in Gaza

Gaza's economy is too dire for Hamas to come to terms with the existing situation: its leadership is willing to take risks to change the situation, even if it leads to war

Rubble in the damaged Arts and Crafts Village, adjacent to a building that was hit by Israeli air strikes the day before, in Gaza City on July 15, 2018.
AFP

The cease-fire brokered last night by Egypt has achieved its immediate goal: Israel and Gaza have stopped shooting. But it will be tested in the coming days over the incendiary kites and balloons.

If fires continue to break out in the region near the Gaza border, things will go back to the way they were. Because of the incendiary kites, Israel started the aerial assaults – and received rocket attacks in return. If the Palestinians continue to launch the kites, the Israeli military response will come sooner or later, eventually leading to another, more serious escalation. This will not be a war to the last balloon (and the army has already said that it doesn’t consider the kites a reason to go to war), but more fires will probably lead to a military confrontation.

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Few details have come out about the agreement mediated by Egyptian intelligence and the U.N. special envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladinov. It apparently focuses on stopping the exchanges of heavy fire that started over the weekend. But for these understandings to hold over time, Israel wants a broader agreement – no more rocket and mortar fire, no more violence along the border fence (on Friday an Israel Defense Forces officer sustained moderate shrapnel injuries from a grenade intentionally lobbed at him), and no more incendiary kites.

Hamas, on the other hand, claims that the kites and the demonstrations reflect legitimate popular protest over which in any case it has no control. And the IDF explains that although Hamas was surprised by the power and timing of the assaults, they are unlikely to bring about a long-term cease-fire. The shape of the economy and civil infrastructure in the Gaza Strip is too severe for Hamas to come to terms with the existing situation. The events of the last months show that the organization’s leadership in the Strip is willing to take risks to change the situation, even if the steps it takes lead the parties dangerously close to a new war.

Achieving a long-term cease-fire would require agreement to major humanitarian steps for the Gaza Strip. But here, as has been written in the past, the main obstacle is the question of the missing and captive Israelis in Gaza. Israel won’t take the steps Hamas wants without a breakthrough on this question, and Hamas won’t discuss that unless Israel releases many more Palestinian prisoners than it is prepared to at this point. (Another obstacle is the conduct of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is unwilling to support any serious infrastructure project in the Strip.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to call a meeting Sunday afternoon of the security cabinet to discuss the situation in Gaza. It is not expected to be an easy meeting for him. Some of the ministers are against the cease-fire obtained on Saturday night. Netanyahu is managing a complex maneuver here around indirect contacts with Hamas. Israel officially denies the existence of such contacts, but in fact it is clear that a major effort at mediation with Hamas is underway. It reflects the reluctance, still, on the part of the prime minister and senior defense officials to embark on another military campaign in Gaza, the goal of which is unclear.

As usual when it comes to Gaza, it is Education Minister Naftali Bennett who is breathing down Netanyahu’s neck. Bennett, who is also chairman of the coalition’s right-wing Habayit Hayehudi, wants to see more aggressive measures against Hamas. Bennett recently presented to the prime minister what he calls a “creative plan” for dealing with the Gaza Strip, which includes “diplomatic, civil and security aspects.” One might guess that Netanyahu’s bureau is not enthusiastic about the plan. If the clash between Bennett and Netanyahu goes public again, in the context of the ongoing distress of the people living on the Gaza border, pressure will grow on Netanyahu’s right flank to approve more escalation in the Strip. That, as we recall, is how four years ago we reached Operation Protective Edge.