Analysis |

Gaza Tensions: Hamas Doesn't Seek Escalation, but Won't Make Do With Restoring Calm

Hamas is not looking for a full-scale clash, but its leaders won’t stop the explosive balloons unless Israel diverts its gaze from the UAE to its yet-to-be implemented agreements with Gaza

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Palestinians in Gaza demonstrating against the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, last week.
Palestinians in Gaza demonstrating against the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, last week.Credit: Mohammed Salem/ Reuters
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

As in other tense periods, on Monday, too, the arrival of the Egyptian delegation in the Gaza Strip was seen as an act intended to prevent a military escalation with Israel. But this time, the visit included an unfamiliar challenge: The Health Ministry in Gaza announced that anyone who came in contact with the Egyptians would be required to remain in isolation in their homes, out of a fear of losing the Gaza Strip’s status as a green zone. In practice, Gazans have bigger worries.

“It’s a strange situation,” a senior Hamas official told Haaretz. “Until not long ago, the nightmare scenario in Gaza was the spread of the coronavirus. Today there are only a few infected people in the Gaza Strip, but in all other ways the situation is dire.”

PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAECredit: Haaretz

In the talks with the Egyptians – who have since left Gaza and may return in the next few days – Hamas representatives demanded to carry out the understandings agreed on after the previous rounds of fighting, and complained that Israel is not allowing them to bring Qatari funds into Gaza, or diesel fuel to produce electricity, and has closed off the sea. Residents of Gaza are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises Hamas made: Bringing in dual-use goods to help a large number of factories, opening the gates to thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel, advancing the construction of an industrial area, and a long list of projects that are supposed to create job opportunities.

For now, the Hamas leadership, headed by Yahya Sinwar, is not striving for a head-on confrontation. The launching of the incendiary balloons and the renewal of the nighttime protests by the border fence are calls of distress directed not only at Israel, but also toward Egypt and the UN representative to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov. The organization has disassociated itself from the firing of rockets at Sderot, and the only rocket firing they conducted in the last few weeks was in the direction of the sea, in what was described as a test firing.

Hamas assumes that Netanyahu does not want an escalation, given the health and economic crises in Israel and the agreement with the UAE. “As of now, it seems that neither of the sides is interested in an escalation,” said a Hamas activist. After the tensions brought the Egyptian delegation to Gaza and forced Qatar to promise to continue with the aid to the needy, “all the cards are in Israel’s hands,” he said.

But in Gaza they will not accept an agreement on stopping the nighttime operations and launching of arson balloons in return for letting in diesel fuel and opening up the sea. “It won’t work,” a Hamas member close to the leadership told Haaretz. “They pay attention in Israel to the people living in Gaza only when we fire rockets. As long as the quiet is preserved, over two million Palestinians don’t exist as far as they’re concerned. Does anyone even ask what happens to the thousands of graduates who leave the universities in Gaza every year, what job opportunities they have? I know young people who finished their degrees, today they are unemployed and have no future. There is hunger in Gaza, and I’m not exaggerating.”

A fire in the Be'eri forest in southern Israel, caused by incendiary balloons launched from Gaza on Sunday. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“If Israel thinks that the Qatari [payments] will allow them to control the Gaza Strip forever, then it won’t work,” said human rights activist in Gaza. “To distribute $100 to 100,000 families every month is not an existential solution, it is a tranquilizer for a cancerous disease that requires much deeper treatment. We are reading about the recession in Israel, where people are coming out into the streets to demonstrate against the government. If it is hard for you, what can you say about the situation in Gaza?” The activist also mentioned the PA’s ending of coordination between it and Israel, which makes it difficult for patients in Gaza to receive treatment: “All this is only adding fuel to the fire. It is a recipe for an explosion.”

A member of the committee that is organizing the protests said that if no progress is made in implementing the understandings, then the Palestinian factions will reconsider their “March of Return” along the border fence too. “Israel and the international community must wake up, otherwise the situation could deteriorate into a severe humanitarian crisis,” he added. “Everyone is busy with the coronavirus, but no one is checking what is happening in other places. In Gaza there are merchants who are selling their property because of the crisis that has befallen them in the last few months.”

Before they arrived in Gaza, the members of the Egyptian delegation met with senior PA officials, including the head of the Palestinian general intelligence services Majed Faraj and Azzam al-Ahmad, who is responsible for the reconciliation portfolio in the PA. But both in Gaza and in Ramallah they understand that a true reconciliation is nowhere on the horizon, and the PA has no tools to make the crisis in Gaza any easier. It is clear to all the parties that this will only happen if the Israeli government, and Netanyahu, sober up from the euphoria resulting from the agreement with the UAE, and shift their gaze to their own backyard.

Fisherman in Gaza return their boats to the shore after Israel closed off the enclave’s fishing zone until further notice on Sunday in response to escalating violence.Credit: Mohammed Salem/ Reuters

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