Opinion

Eurovision in Israel Is Still Too Tempting a Target for Hamas

Israel's relief at a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants days before the start of Eurovision may be badly misplaced

Netta Barzilay, Israel's entry, celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Lisbon, Portugal on May 12, 2018 ensuring the 2019 contest would be held in Israel
Armando Franca,AP

The sigh of relief at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, where the Eurovision Song Contest is due to be held in a week's time, could have been heard from Helsinki to Madrid.

A de facto ceasefire has held since the early hours of May 6, capping 45 hours of intense conflict between Israel and Gaza, during which Hamas had threatened to "blow up Tel Aviv." But that relief may be premature – and misplaced.

It was only going to be a matter of time before tensions led to a spike of violence between Israel, and assorted Palestinian insurgent groups operating within the Gaza Strip – and the sequence of events was not in and of itself particularly unusual. Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired a small salvo of indiscriminately aimed rockets towards southern Israeli communities.

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In line with its normal policy of holding Hamas responsible for any attacks emanating from the coastal enclave, and despite the group’s weakening hold on power, Israel launched its own wave of counter-attacks against Hamas’s infrastructure, who in turn retaliated with substantial rocket fire against Israel.

Nearly 700 projectiles (rockets, mortar shells, and anti-tank missiles) were fired into Israel from Gaza, four Israelis were killed (all of whom were civilians), hundreds of Israeli airstrikes pounded targets within the Gaza Strip, and 25 Palestinians were also reported to have been killed, including eight militants.

This recent round of violence is particularly significant because it indicates a shift in Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s respective strategies against Israel.

Previously, confined spikes of violence and isolated rocket salvos appeared to have been piecemeal attempts by Palestinian Islamic Jihad to undermine Hamas, to promote its own position as the leaders of the resistance in the Gaza Strip, and to terrorize Israel’s civilian population.

The timing of their actions has not been especially strategic, and have often been immediate retaliations for  specific Israeli actions, such as November 2018’s botched Israeli special forces mission into Gaza.

More often than not, Hamas has been unwilling to escalate hostilities, doing the bare minimum to enable it to still declare itself an armed Palestinian resistance organization. However, this round, Hamas was more pro-active. The majority of the weekend’s rocket fire has been attributed to them, and they have made no efforts to deny this fact.

Why did Hamas change its modus operandi? Achieving a military victory over Israel was and is impossible; instead, Hamas sought – and is likely to increasingly seek – to incur, or at very least facilitate other factions to incur, significant non-military losses.

A man surveys the damage inside a building hit during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 6, 2019
AFP

The key areas where Hamas could achieve these objectives are to damage the Israeli economy and its tourist industry, to dent civilian morale during a period of civic, patriotic festivities (in the week of Israel’s Independence Day, which falls this week), and to undermine confidence in the Israeli post-elections government-in-the-making.

Netanyahu is already absorbing significant criticism for "surrendering" to the relatively swift ceasefire both from within his own Likud, from far more hawkish potential coalition partners, and from opposition center parties.

In response, Netanyahu has tried to keep the initiative, asserting that, "the battle is not over and requires patience and level-headedness. We are prepared to carry on." Netanyahu wants to control the timeline of the conflict with Gaza's militants, and to protect the next full week of events, from Independence Day to Eurovision. But Hamas may pre-empt him.

Hamas’s prize is non-military damage to Israel, and its leverage to make that happen are rockets, mortars and anti-tank missile fire.

The tourist industry has always been important to Israel, though suffering periodic and drastic falls during periods of conflict. However it has recovered from a deep low around the Second Intifada to be accepted as safe enough to host the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv.

It may already be the case that some Eurovision fans no longer feel safe enough to visit Israel so soon after a period of conflict and with an untested ceasefire. Indeed, only 5,000 fans are due to arrive, a far lower number than for other host cities. But the event's biggest exposure is its enormous televised reach: 186 million people watched the 2018 finals.

The prestige and primetime global attention for Israel may prove too big a temptation for Hamas to ignore. Hosting Eurovision is one of Israel’s biggest coups in terms of popular culture on the international stage.

If Israel is unwilling to meet critical Hamas demands in the negotiations aftermath of these hostilities, Hamas may choose to initiate another limited conflict just before, or during – to exert a maximum toll on Israel. Denying Israel the peak normalization of hosting Eurovision peacefully and successfully would mark a major asymmetric victory for Hamas.

Palestinians gather around the wreckage of the car of a Hamas commander who was killed in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City May 5, 2019
\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

Iran, the mentor and funder of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas both share in interest in attacking non-military targets in Israel, such as the tourist industry, and in more "meta-targets" such as undermining the Israeli public's confidence in its government. While their interests often diverge, the recent round of violence demonstrated how closely they are still prepared to work together.

After years of escalating tensions between the two groups, the prospect of this close cooperation repeating itself should alarm Israeli security officials.

For the most part, Hamas has been effective in restraining fellow Gazan-based Palestinian factions, and has prevented them from large-scale firing into Israel since the summer of 2014. While restraint should not be confused for moderation, Hamas is still interested in Israel recognizing it as a partner for quiet and order – and in a region where policymaking is dominated by pragmatic transactionalism, Israel has built clear understanding, even a "cohabitation" with Hamas.

Only days ago, a Hamas delegation led by its leader Yahya Sinwar travelled from the Gaza Strip to Egypt to discuss the prospect of a longer-term truce with Israel.

Hamas, therefore, is both a partner and a threat that Israel can't ignore. With Eurovision approaching, Israel's leader is likely to have few options, bar stalling negotiations, but to acquiesce to various Hamas demands to keep the peace, at least for the next ten days.

The question is whether this will satisfy Hamas – or if the attraction of disrupting an event in which Israel is so invested, and to which so many eyes around the world are directed, will win out. 

Daniel J. Levy is a graduate of the Universities of Leeds and Oxford, where his academic research focused on Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. He is the founding director of The Ortakoy Security Group. Twitter: @danielhalevy