Israeli defense sources confirmed Wednesday that the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip had over the past two days conveyed that it was prepared to gradually reduce the launches of burning kites and balloons towards the Gaza border-area communities. Palestinian media outlets similarly reported that an agreement of this nature was expected as a result of the indirect contacts between the sides.
Israel has been pleased with the deep involvement of the UN secretary-general’s envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, in the efforts to resolve the escalation in the Gaza Strip. Mladenov has been in continuous contact with National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat. At the same time, the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, has been meeting senior Egyptian intelligence officials. A Hamas delegation has been in Egypt for the past several days as part of the reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority, and during its discussions with Egyptian officials, the tension with Israel was also discussed.
On Saturday a cease-fire agreement was reached with the mediation of Egypt and the United Nations. Hamas agreed to stop firing rockets and mortars and Israel stopped its air strikes against Hamas’ military targets. But because the negotiations are indirect and unofficial, there were no understandings reached regarding the incendiary kites and balloons, which have caused hundreds of fires in farmland and nature areas. Hamas hinted on Saturday that it would work to stop them, but the next day it backtracked, calling it a “popular phenomenon” over which it had no control.
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But since the beginning of the week Israel has sharpened its tone. With the government coming under increasing criticism for its seeming inability to deal with the fires, support in the political echelon for a military operation in Gaza has increased. The prime minister and defense minister visited the Gaza-area communities and the IDF initiated extensive media coverage of a brigade exercise in the Negev that simulated the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip.
All these signals were interpreted by Hamas as the first signs of a genuine willingness by Israel to pursue military confrontation. This is apparently why the new messages about reining in the incendiary kites and balloons were sent. Messages aside, there were 15 fires in Israeli fields on Wednesday.
At the same time, Israel continues to restrict the passage of goods into the Strip via the Kerem Shalom crossing. According to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s announcement, the transfer of fuel and diesel to the Gaza Strip has been halted until Sunday. On Thursday the Gaza Strip is likely to run out of cooking gas. Gaza’s traders are trying to stockpile quantities of fuel as they expect the shortage to worsen. Businessmen and merchants in Gaza have been pressuring the Hamas leadership to stop the kite launches, saying that it is further depressing Gaza’s economic situation and increasing the risk of war.
These appeals to Hamas leaders also appear to be behind their renewed willingness to examine the cessation of violence. However, it is reasonable to assume that Hamas will try to condition a lasting cease-fire on Israeli economic moves that will benefit the Gaza Strip, after being pleasantly surprised by the widespread influence of the burning kites on Israeli public opinion.
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