Hot in Gaza, Continued Cooling in the West Bank

Though relations with Hamas remain hostile and tense, things in the West Bank are so calm that Israel's security establishment is considering further easing of restrictions there.

This is an assortment of headlines from the past week's newspapers: The men suspected of murdering a policeman near Hebron were apprehended, a Gaza resident was killed by Israel Defense Forces tank fire, the IDF is considering allowing Jews to enter West Bank cities again, and the Iron Dome missile interception system passed several tests.

Palestinian boys waiting for customers crossing through the Jalam checkpoint in the West Bank.

Such headlines barely make their way to the front pages. It is doubtful whether the news editors give them more than a brief thought. For the vast majority of Israelis, these things are happening on the dark side of the moon. Although the long conflict with the Palestinians is occupying the political and military leadership, the territories currently look like a secondary problem. In terms of security, Israel, in spite of the flotilla affair in late May, is presently experiencing a quiet summer, the second in a row (the summer of 2008 was also calm, but the end of the summer saw the start of the deterioration that ended in Operation Cast Lead ).

The quiet is the result of a balance of deterrence vis-a-vis the Palestinians on both fronts, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And by nature, deterrence lasts only until it collapses.

Taking stock in Gaza

A year and a half after the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas, which controls the Strip, is not launching rockets and mortars into Israeli territory and is still showing restraint, reining in the smaller factions. Though it is neither trying to prevent all attacks nor succeeding in doing so, Hamas is warning the organizations, confiscating their arms and detaining activists - far more than anyone would have imagined two years ago.

On the military front, Hamas has learned from the last round of war. With the help of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, it closed gaps and fixed shortcomings revealed in the confrontation with the IDF. Hamas seems to have concluded that it was hampered by a shortage of arms and skill. Since then it has sought and received more of the same: more steep-trajectory rockets (which are also now more precise and have a longer range ), more anti-tank missiles, and better roadside bombs. Israel presumes that Hamas has more rockets now than on the eve of the last round of fighting.

Activists from the organization's military arm were sent for long stays at terror camps in Iran and Syria, and upon returning to Gaza, they trained the friends they had left behind.

Arms smuggling is still Hamas' main means for upgrading its military power. Hamas is the party controlling the tunnels industry. The organization prohibited the import of carbonated drinks from Israel, even though the siege has been eased, because it collects a tax on merchandise from the tunnels.

Hamas is still concerned about the iron wall Egypt is building in Rafah. Two thirds of the nine kilometers have already been built, and the rest will be completed by the end of the year. A few weeks ago, the Palestinians broke through the wall with gas tanks, but the Egyptian initiative still threatens the future of smuggling.

In tests last year, Hamas showed it could fire a rocket 60 kilometers. The rocket looks like a variation of the Iranian Fajr. We have to assume the Palestinians have several dozen rockets of different models. Beyond that, they have dozens of modern anti-tank missiles and possibly anti-aircraft missiles as well.

In addition to equipment, Hamas has action plans. Its first priority is kidnappings. The Gilad Shalit affair has sharpened the organization's understanding of how acute a weak point this is for Israel. Hamas is still digging "attack" tunnels to infiltrate Israel and kidnap soldiers. The air force bombs them when they are identified by intelligence. About a third of the aerial attacks this year were aimed at attack tunnels.

Last year, Hamas did not launch kidnapping attempts along the patrol fence on Gaza's border, but there were at least two other attempts: a Hamas activist who received instructions from a senior member of the organization in Gaza infiltrated Israel via Sinai in order to kidnap a civilian to Gaza, and a global jihad squad from Sinai, directed indirectly by the head of Hamas' military arm in Gaza, Ahmed Jabri, tried to kidnap an Israeli tourist on Egyptian territory over the Passover holiday. The army believes Israel should tell Hamas unequivocally in advance that another kidnapping is out of the question and will elicit an especially harsh reaction.

When an IDF force goes on a patrol in Gaza, this could cause a confrontation with Hamas. In April, when a Golani Brigade officer and soldier were killed during a pursuit in Palestinian territory, the terrorist who killed them was a former member of Islamic Jihad. Hamas took responsibility, apparently in order to score points with the Palestinian public, on the assumption that this was within the rules of the game against Israel.

Even Islamic Jihad has recently restrained offensive activity due to Hamas pressure. The battle against Israel is now being led by groups identified with global jihad, in addition to splinters of veteran movements such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The fighting, at very low intensity, focuses on light weapons, obsolete anti-tank rockets (rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs ) and roadside bombs near the fence. The main challenge for Hamas lies in the global jihad groups, which absorb those disappointed by Hamas and are assisted by reinforcements from other Muslim countries.

A year ago in Rafah, Hamas responded to such groups with an iron hand, when it raided a mosque, killing more than 20 activists. The groups are threatening to settle the account with the Hamas members responsible for the massacre, and are attacking Hamas military outposts and public institutions. About 30 such attacks were registered this year, more than three times the number a year ago.

Internally, Hamas is full of self-confidence, as it celebrates the lifting of the siege by Israel, in the wake of the flotilla events. But in its diplomatic contacts the organization is behaving as though it is still an underdog hoping for international assistance that will pressure Israel to make further concessions.

Calm in the West Bank

The situation in the West Bank is entirely different. Israel's success in stopping suicide attacks has led to the rise of the new Palestinian political leadership, which rejects terror. The improvement in security coordination is encouraging Israel to reexamine old ideas, such as the idea of allowing Israelis to enter Palestinian Authority-controlled Area A and allowing the PA to receive 50 Russian-made armored cars. A new generation of officers is leading the Palestinian security services, many of them graduates of the American training system instituted by U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.

"Even when a serious incident erupts, from a torched mosque to a murdered Israeli policeman, the clear interest of both sides is to contain it. As a result, we are able to stop a spillover into more widespread violence," a senior Israeli security official told Haaretz.

The optimistic part of the picture in the West Bank includes the constant improvement in law enforcement, the tightening of security coordination and continued economic growth. There are two areas where the gap is still of concern: The Fatah political leadership, as opposed to that of the Palestinian Authority, has not yet awakened enough to fight Hamas (as proven by the most recent decision to cancel local elections in the West Bank, for fear of defeat ). In spite of the proximity talks, the diplomatic negotiations with Israel are still stuck.

In the absence of direct talks, it is Israel's defense establishment that provides the main channel of communication with the PA. A prominent example of that was seen in the meeting of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak with the PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, at the beginning of the month. Liaison talks between Israeli major generals and brigadier generals, on the one hand, and senior officers in the Palestinian security services and the PA political leadership, on the other, take place on a regular basis, far from the media.

Paradoxically, in spite of the profound hatred between Fatah and Hamas and the process of separation underway between the Strip and the West Bank, to which Israel is also a partner, additional improvements in Gaza depend largely on what happens in the West Bank. Hamas' demands that the siege be eased further have received a great deal of international attention, especially in Europe. Although Israel has received praise from the United States and Europe for its swift implementation of the most recent concessions, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who visited Israel and Gaza last week, emphasized the need for additional steps.

The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, who met with Ashton, told her that as far as Israel is concerned, significant additional progress in Gaza depends on Hamas allowing the PA back in.

"A Gazan student will not be able to study in the West Bank and Hamas will not be allowed to export from Gaza until 10 people with a PA flag are deployed at the Kerem Shalom crossing, and Hamas allows projects led by Salam Fayyad to get started in Gaza," say security sources.