On Wednesday afternoon, as a nation watched “torn at heart but breathing” (to paraphrase Natan Alterman) a press conference convened by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, there was a changing of the guard ceremony at the army’s Southern Command headquarters in Be’er Sheva, in which Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi took over from his predecessor Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir. The ceremony had been postponed by a week due to the clashes at the Gaza border. Halevi will be called on to contend with the same issues Zamir encountered in his last months in office. This will begin midday Friday, at demonstrations the Palestinians plan to hold along the border fence.
After the June 5 “Naksa Day” events commemorating the 1967 war fizzled out, Hamas is seeking to bring masses of people to the fence this time. The IDF is bracing for intensified levels of violence, the first since the harsh clashes ahead of Nakba Day in mid-May. Speakers at the changing of the guard ceremony noted the army’s success under Zamir in finding a solution to the threat of the tunnels, with an stepped-up drive to locate attack tunnels (at least 10 have been found since last October) and the construction of an underground wall designed to prevent further tunnels from being built.
By comparison, the incendiary kites and balloons by which Palestinians have been setting fire to fields and woods in communities along the border are not a strategic threat. However, the constant sight of palls of smoke over these communities in recent weeks and the difficulties in stopping the fires cause frustration and anxiety in border communities, putting pressure on the army to take action.
Zamir, like Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, dismissed the option of striking the people sending these kites over the fence. The kites and balloons are usually launched from the midst of large groups of people, far from the border fence. Snipers usually cannot shoot the people sending them this way, and using the air force would seem totally disproportionate. The IDF is still searching for more effective solutions without resorting to live fire.
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Meanwhile, in public appearances and media interviews, senior Hamas officials are expressing their satisfaction with the events of recent weeks. Lt. Col. (res.) Alon Eviatar, an expert on Palestinian matters, says that in their statements Hamas leaders repeat their list of achievements: a show of Palestinian unity in the Gaza Strip, setting the agenda in the media, success of the incendiary kites as a method of popular resistance, and control of focal points along the fence while determining the level of violence.
The darling minister
The main achievement chalked up by the Palestinian Authority after a long dry spell came when Argentina announced the cancellation of the friendly soccer game against Israel, scheduled to be held in Jerusalem on Saturday. The media farce led by Minister Regev, from this week the darling of the Palestinian people, ended with a painful slipping away of the Argentinians.
The backdrop for all this, aside from the controversy over the status of Jerusalem, was nevertheless the events in Gaza. Israel would find it easier to market its positions in the international arena during a period when its sharpshooters were not killing dozens of demonstrators (even if the majority were Hamas members) along the Gaza border. It was no coincidence that British Prime Minister Theresa May chose to express her concern over these killings at a joint press conference with Netanyahu in London.
In the Palestinian arena, this week’s big winner was the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, who has had a stormy relationship with Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords. Rajoub, along with his comrade-rival Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza, was Israel’s dominant security partner on behalf of Yasser Arafat in the 1990s. At the height of the second intifada he fell out of favor and Shaul Mofaz, the IDF chief of staff at the time, presented him as the greatest terrorist in the Palestinian Authority. In recent years, after being maneuvered by President Mahmoud Abbas into a relatively marginal role, Rajoub has been strengthening his position. The defense establishment in Israel estimates that he has a good chance of becoming one of the strongmen in the group that succeeds Abbas when the time comes. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Rajoub – called by the Hebrew name Gavriel Regev by his Shin Bet interlocutors – has crossed paths with Regev. In 2001, at the start of the second intifada, an IDF tank force fired shells at Rajoub’s house in Ramallah, in an exchange of fire with armed Palestinians who were hiding near the house. Some of Rajoub’s bodyguards were wounded and he blamed the IDF for deliberately trying to take him out.
Did commanders in the field know that a senior Palestinian official lived there, requiring extra precaution? The IDF version had some contradicting elements in it. Lt. Col. Erez Viner gave one version. The IDF spokesperson, Lt. Col. Miri Regev, gave the opposite version, a storyline that raised some doubts.
The IDF squirmed and ultimately apologized, but a year later, during Operation Defensive Shield, Mofaz ordered an aggressive siege around the headquarters of Rajoub’s Preventive Security Service in Beitunia. The headquarters was targeted by heavy fire and Rajoub’s men turned themselves in (with Arafat’s consent, said Rajoub). It took their commander, who remained at home in Ramallah, several years to shake off accusations that he had permitted his men to surrender without a fight. In the end, along came Leo Messi and Miri Regev, relieving Rajoub of this burden.