Analysis

Israel May Talk Tough, but Lets Hamas Corner It Into a Compromise to Avoid Escalation

Netanyahu voices public warning to clarify to the group that despite many concessions given in recent weeks, Jerusalem isn't scared of a pre-election operation

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to return a tear gas canister thrown by Israeli forces during clashes near the fence along the border with Israel, March 8, 2019.
AFP

Hamas has managed to extract substantial concessions from Israel and the international community by threatening to escalate violence along the Gaza-Israel border before April’s Knesset election.

In recent weeks, Israel has expanded the permitted fishing zone for Gaza’s fishermen and made it easier to bring construction inputs into Gaza. Egypt has kept the Gaza-Egypt border crossing open continuously. Qatar is considering increasing financial aid to Gaza, including funding for Gaza’s power supply. And the United Nations is backing a project to pay Gaza residents for work, though some of this work will be fictitious.

>> Read more: Hamas knows now is the best time to pressure Israel into concessions  ■ A botched Gaza raid may rewrite how Israel runs its special operations ■ Hamas official tells Haaretz group wants calm, but expects Israel to ease Gaza restrictions in return

At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hamas not to count on Israel fearing a military operation in Gaza before the election and promised to do “everything necessary” to restore quiet to Israelis in Gaza-area communities. But in practice, Israel’s military responses to the incendiary balloons, the explosives hurled at the border and the lone rocket launched every few days have remained fairly moderate.

Israel’s rhetoric is hardline, but its actions less so. The comparatively few Palestinian casualties at the past few Friday demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border are further evidence of the Israel Defense Forces’ increasing restraint.

This restraint is meant to prevent escalation. But Netanyahu’s public warning is meant to ensure that Hamas doesn’t interpret Israel’s caution as license to run wild, which would ultimately provoke a harsher Israeli response that could lead to war.

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For now, Hamas seems to have partial but not total control over events. The last three rockets were perhaps launched by a local cell in the Rafah area, possibly belonging to a breakaway faction of Islamic Jihad that views even that organization – the most radical of Gaza’s major groups – as not radical enough. This faction identifies with Iran and its Shi’ite religious ideology. Hamas arrested its leader about 10 days ago.

The Egyptian delegation that visited Israel and Gaza last week to try to forge agreements on a lull in fighting hasn’t yet returned to Cairo. On Friday, it stayed in Gaza to pressure Hamas to control the violence during the weekly demonstration along the Israeli border. And on Sunday, it held further talks with Israeli officials.

For Hamas, the Egyptian delegation’s presence, like the activity of other diplomats, is good news. After almost a year of weekly demonstrations, Hamas hasn’t completely broken Gaza’s blockade, but the international community is no longer ignoring Gazans’ misery.

On March 30, the Palestinians will mark both Land Day (commemorating a 1976 demonstration by Israeli Arabs against land confiscations, in which six protesters were killed by security forces) and the one-year anniversary of the weekly demonstrations. Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Milstein, who headed the Palestinian desk in Military Intelligence’s research division, wrote in an article for the Institute of National Security Studies that Hamas arrived at its current modus operandi through trial and error rather than an orderly plan.

This, he wrote, is Hamas’ “war between the wars.” Like Israel on the northern front, it has opted for a confrontation that falls short of war. But the risk, he noted, is of an unintentional slide into war, as happened in summer 2014.

Milstein deemed Hamas’ achievements to date small compared to what Gazans have sacrificed over the past year – hundreds of people killed and thousands wounded during clashes along the border.

He also said the past year’s events have deepened the rift between Gaza and the West Bank, adding that Hamas has thus far failed to inflame the latter and spark a conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In fact, the main risk today seems to be the West Bank’s influence on Gaza rather than vice versa.

Israel’s recent decision to withhold the amount the PA pays Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel – some 500 million shekels ($138 million) – from the tax revenues it remits to the PA has caused a severe crisis between Israel and the PA. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in response that he will refuse to accept any tax remittances from Israel. That will bring the PA to the brink of an economic crisis and increase the pressure on Gaza, which still relies on PA funding.

It also threatens security coordination between Israel and the PA, a key factor in maintaining the West Bank’s stability. That’s why all the security services urged the government not to implement the withholding law, which the Knesset passed in July. But political considerations won out.

On one issue, Israel has apparently capitulated, albeit quietly. There were no major clashes between the police and Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount on Friday, even though no agreement had been reached about the Bab al-Rahma, which the Waqf (the Muslim organization that controls the Mount) recently reopened, 16 years after Israel closed it.

At least on the Temple Mount, Israel is apparently adopting a cautious policy, understanding that any violence there could immediately affect both the situation in the territories and its delicate relationship with Jordan.