The escalation between Israel and the Gaza factions over the weekend – more than 400 rockets fired at Israel, a broad bombing of Gaza by the air force, seven Palestinians killed and six Israelis wounded – reflects an attempt by Hamas to address its economic woes by putting military pressure on Israel at a sensitive time.
Hamas knows well that the timing of the flare-up is particularly troublesome for Israel ahead of Memorial Day, Independence Day and the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv at mid-month. Under these circumstances, there’s a good chance the escalation will end in a compromise and with concessions for the Palestinians, something that very likely could have been reached without bloodshed.
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To understand what’s happening, it’s crucial to revisit events from before the April 9 election. In recent months, Egyptian intelligence officials have been mediating between Israel and Hamas in an attempt to reach long-term agreements. The Palestinians would put a complete stop to airborne firebombs and rockets, while Israel would ease movement through border crossings, allow large sums of Qatari money into the Gaza Strip and take steps to accommodate large-scale, internationally-financed projects in Gaza to improve the crumbling infrastructure. At a later stage, talks over a prisoner swap would be renewed.
Ahead of the election, and in light of the promises by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the hopes of avoiding a conflict as Israelis voted, Hamas held its fire. But the payoff didn’t arrive at a pace that satisfied the Palestinians. Israel wasn’t quick to meet its commitments. The concessions at the border crossings were anything but swift, the number of trucks bringing goods into Gaza every day was modest, and efforts to increase the electricity supply hadn’t yet begun.
Another key hurdle for the Palestinians was the delay in transferring the Qatari money – $30 million a month, with this month’s installment particularly important as Ramadan begins on Monday, and with it rising spending. Hamas blamed Israel for these hurdles, but Israeli defense officials say the delay in transferring money is purely technical: The Qatari envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Al-Emadi, has been called urgently to the United States because of a family member’s illness.
Over the past week, Islamic Jihad began to take bolder steps. On Tuesday morning, a rocket was fired and exploded near Israel’s coast, to which Israel responded with a minor airstrike and a curbing of Gaza’s fishing zones. The army accused the commander of Gaza’s northern front, claiming he’s getting his orders from the organization’s headquarters in Lebanon. The extent of the coordination between Hamas and Islamic Jihad wasn’t entirely clear. Is Islamic Jihad operating independently, or is Hamas using this smaller organization to convey messages to Israel without taking responsibility for actions on the ground?
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The situation escalated further on Friday. During the Friday protests on the Gaza border, a jeep belonging to an Israeli officer came under fire. An officer sustained moderate wounds and a soldier was lightly wounded. No organization claimed responsibility, but it seems to be the work of Islamic Jihad.
Israel responded with tank fire and airstrikes, killing two Hamas fighters. This was a decision from on high, not the immediate response of commanders on the ground. Two more Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli fire in separate incidents along the border.
The Palestinian response came Saturday morning with a coordinated barrage from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which even operate a joint command center.
Firing back and forth continued all day. Like the Israel Defense Forces, it seems Hamas wants to extract a price for strikes against its people. In recent months, the organization has rarely responded directly to killings during demonstrations along the border fence. Sometimes Hamas lets a smaller faction fire symbolic rounds. This time massive launches were decided on, as if to signal that the members of the group’s military wing were off-limits.
Many rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome batteries, but sirens drove hundreds of thousands of civilians in the south to secure areas. There were direct hits on homes in Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon and some communities along the Gaza border, where civilians were wounded. Although longer-range rockets explored south of Ashdod, sirens blared all the way to Rehovot.
As usual, the prime minister called for security consultations, after which the air force launched waves of attacks. By evening the IDF said 120 sites linked to Hamas and other Palestinian factions had been bombed in the Strip. However, the relatively few Palestinian deaths considering the extent of the assaults shows that the air force is still trying to avoid what the military calls collateral damage. In other words, Israel is being careful so that the situation doesn’t deteriorate to the brink of war.
Another restriction on the Israeli response has to do with the timetable. It’s not just the Independence Day festivities that the government is worried about; hundreds of millions of people worldwide will watch Eurovision. If Hamas’ threats lead to the disruption – or even cancellation – of the song contest, Israel’s prestige will take a severe blow.
While security sources in Israel said Saturday that Eurovision would not be a consideration to restrain the IDF, it’s unlikely that Hamas buys that claim. It’s not for nothing that the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, spent more than 20 years in an Israeli prison. He understands us quite well.
The direction of the IDF’s efforts are also reflected in other steps taken. So far it has been decided on only a limited call-up of reservists for the air defense system, intelligence and the Home Front Command. The Gaza Division has been beefed up with a small additional number of ground forces. In contrast, Iron Dome batteries have been widely deployed. Netanyahu prefers (and rightly so) avoiding a ground operation in Gaza. His problem is that Sinwar knows this too.
The rockets were fired while Sinwar and Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhalah were in Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials about a long-term arrangement with Israel. The gamble both organizations have taken not only reflects their boldness, it also conveys what’s at stake.
Hamas is desperate for money to flow into the Strip on the eve of Ramadan, so it’s willing to risk Egyptian ire and a harsh Israeli response.
Also remember what’s happening on the other Palestinian front, the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority is also suffering a severe economic crisis and is locked in conflict with Israel over payments to prisoners. As was the case before the Israeli election, the task of building a coalition is taking place against the backdrop of nearly constant military friction and tension.