Analysis

Gaza Flare-up Is Over for Now; Next Up: Iran

By every indication, Israel will be giving Hamas exactly what it had committed to a month and a half ago, but the army is already discussing prospects of a broad military campaign in the coming months as rather reasonable

The remains of a building in Gaza City after it was hit during Israeli air strikes, May 5, 2019
AFP

The latest round of violence in Gaza wound down Monday morning more or less just like the preceding ones. The cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian organizations came into effect a few hours after initially being reported in Gaza, despite Israel’s repeated denials during the night on Sunday.

The announcement from Israeli’s Home Front Command at 7 A.M. on Monday that residents could resume their routines in communities in southern Israel provided official confirmation that the escalation was over – without the country’s political leadership uttering as much as a peep.

This round was quicker, more violent and deadlier than those of recent years: Four Israelis killed and 25 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza, among them women and children – including one incident involving friendly fire from Hamas. Some 700 rockets were fired at Israeli towns, practically paralyzing normal life as far north as Ashdod for two days.

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Was there any justification for all this? By every indication, Israel will be providing Hamas exactly what it had committed to provide a month and a half ago, and which it had been in no hurry to deliver – expediting the transfer of funds from Qatar and easing passage at border crossings – in exchange for restored quiet on the Israel-Gaza border.

Yet getting to this outcome, all of which had been agreed upon before Israel’s April 9 election, cost Israel four civilian deaths. That’s the equivalent of two-thirds of the civilian fatalities from 50 days of hostilities between Israel and Hamas and its allies in the Gaza war in 2014.

What went wrong? As usual, the army will now investigate the faults in its defensive and offensive preparations, as well as gaps in its intelligence analysis. The foot-dragging when it came to the easing of conditions in Gaza is not being explained. Some of the delay apparently had nothing to do with Israel: The schedule of the Qatari envoy to the region, Mohammed al-Emadi, went awry and held up the money transfer from Qatar to Gaza. But there were other delays that Israel was not quick to resolve.

Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter volunteered to make the round of media interviews on Monday morning. When asked on Kan public radio whether he would counsel the prime minister to explain himself to the public, Dichter let slip that maybe that is the defense minister’s job. Benjamin Netanyahu currently fills both positions, but his associates don’t feel the need to provide detailed explanations to the public.

When trouble rears its head, they can always blame the Oslo process, the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and other alleged left-wing crimes – as they have in fact done over the past two days.

The arrangement reached overnight between Sunday and Monday could calm things down, for days, or maybe weeks. Netanyahu is right in his underlying reluctance to engage in a war in Gaza that is not essential and would exact a heavy price in human lives.

Fear of perceptions

The problem lies in the Israeli fear over how larger concessions would be perceived politically – without which the chances of achieving relatively long-term stability appear small. With the direction things are headed, particularly as the violence escalates from round to round, another clash with Hamas and Islamic Jihad is a matter of time. In the Israeli army, they are already beginning to discuss the prospects of a broad military campaign in Gaza in the coming months as rather reasonable.

The constant pressure in the Strip, which is collapsing together with its civilian infrastructure, is joined by two other worrying developments on other fronts, and are related to one another. They involve the West Bank and indirectly the mounting tension between the United States and Iran.

Nearly 700 rockets were fired at southern Israeli communities on May 4 and 5, 2019..
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

There is a risk that in the West Bank things will spiral out of control over the Palestinian Authority’s disappointment with the “deal of the century” – the Trump administration’s peace initiative, which Washington says it intends to present in June, after Ramadan, which began on Monday. The Palestinian frustration is combined with economic distress, which in turn stems from the crisis with Israel over the Palestinian Authority’s financial support for Palestinian prisoners in Israel and the cuts to international aid, initiated by the United States.

Looming crisis with Iran

But the bigger crisis looming ahead is with Iran. It remains difficult to understand Washington’s intentions vis-à-vis Tehran, but the U.S. administration now appears to be reviving the 12-point plan presented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a year ago, after America pulled out of the Iranian nuclear accord. American sanctions have been weighing heavily on the Iranian economy as European companies are forced to abandon trade with Iran.

On Sunday night, the United States announced that it is sending the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf. That isn’t so extraordinary in and of itself, but the rhetoric accompanying the move is almost warlike.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said the dispatch of the huge naval vessel is designed to deliver a message to Iran, and warned that any attack on American interests or those of its allies would be met by “unrelenting force.” Perhaps the Americans know something about secret Iranian plans, or maybe their move is designed to compensate for President Trump’s weakness on other foreign policy fronts – chiefly the relationships with Russia and North Korea.

One way or another, a new trend is developing here that could affect Israel, and as summer approaches, combine with troubles closer to home, on the Palestinian front.