Analysis

Rockets on Tel Aviv on Election's Eve: Israel and Hamas Are on the War Path

Predictable Israeli response to rocket fire was tough, but both parties can still evade all-out confrontation as Egypt, Qatar vie to quell tensions

The sky above buildings on the Gaza Strip glows orange during an Israeli air strike in Gaza city late on March 14, 2019.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

The firing of two rockets at the Tel Aviv area from the Gaza Strip on Thursday evening reflects a serious escalation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Strip. Over the past year, there have been several major flare-ups between the two sides, the most serious of which, in November, involved the firing of more than 500 rockets at southern Israel. But the Palestinians also know that Israel views rocket fire from Gaza that lands in the center of Israel differently.

The seriousness is compounded by the fact that that rocket fire was carried out in the middle of an Israeli election campaign in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been attacked from all sides for allegedly not being resolute enough in the face of terrorism. Israel had to respond forcefully to the rockets on the Tel Aviv area and attacked about 100 targets in the Strip overnight. Taking that into consideration, it's possible that the path to a deterioration of the situation could be short.

>> With Gaza a priority, Israel seeks to quell Temple Mount tensions ■ Israel may talk tough, but lets Hamas corner it into a compromise to avoid escalation

It is known that Thursday's rocket attack was a surprise to Israeli intelligence, which had taken into account that an escalation was possible before the April 9 election, including a Palestinian attempt to provoke Israel. But Thursday's incident involved someone in Gaza deciding to considerably up the ante of the gamble by firing at the center of Israel during prime time on Israeli television – as if we were still in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war that Israel fought against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, when volleys of rockets were fired at the Greater Tel Aviv area.

Defense officials tried on Thursday evening to reliably determine who exactly was responsible for the rocket fire. The immediate suspects are members of Islamic Jihad, which (like Hamas) has rockets with such a range. Islamic Jihad has been pursuing an independent, more aggressive agenda for quite some time in the Gaza Strip. This trend has even intensified since the organization's appointment of a new secretary general, Ziyad Nahleh, who has very close ties to the Iranians.

On the other hand, it's difficult to believe that such a thing would happen without Hamas having any idea about it. From Hamas' standpoint, there was also another consideration at play on Thursday. In a highly unusual occurrence, hundreds of Gazans staged a demonstration against the cost of living. Hamas security forces used major force in dispersing the demonstration. Such a protest is a disturbing warning sign from Hamas' perspective.

One cannot discount the possibility the Hamas would prefer to deflect the fire toward Israel so that Hamas itself doesn’t collapse under the weight of popular protest over the impossible economic conditions that Gazans live under. In the past too, such as the developments that ultimately led to Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Hamas' leadership acted out of similar considerations.

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed building belongs to Hamas ministry of prisoners hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, early Friday, March 15, 2019.
AP

This new escalation is actually taking place in the midst of efforts at achieving a long-term calm, which Israel has agreed to assist in. The Netanyahu government's lack of desire for war in Gaza has been clear to everyone. Israel delivered a tough response to Thursday's rocket fire, but as in prior rounds, it's reasonable that the two sides could still choose ways out of the current situation before it becomes an all-out confrontation. 

And just Thursday, a senior Egyptian intelligence delegation had resumed shuttle talks between Israel and Gaza. The Egyptians arrived in Gaza with a hope that their presence would help in curbing Friday’s demonstrations, but their visit was cut short after Israel asked them to leave the Strip, supposedly ahead of an Israeli attacks against targets in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

The Egyptians’ aim is transparent: to create an illusion of progress achieved in indirect talks in order to prevent a conflagration on the border before Israel’s election. Egyptian efforts are being conducted alongside some hostile competition with Qatar, with some degree of coordination with Nickolay Mladenov, the UN secretary general’s special coordinator.

The promises bestowed on Hamas leaders are as plentiful as the grains of sand on Gaza’s beaches, with some of them destined to share the same fate – being blown away by the winds. In the meantime, Hamas prefers to view these promises positively. This week, night-time demonstrations along the fence were suspended, with fewer incendiary balloons sent over the border, but no one doubts that the organization will continue to promote demonstrations and incidents at a level that serves its purposes.

Among the different mediators, Qatar can back its gestures with cash. Now there is talk of increasing the monthly hush money received by Hamas from its current $15 million to $30 million for six months, starting in May. Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi is also marketing large construction and infrastructure projects. A cornerstone has already been laid in Gaza for a gigantic storage facility, funded by Qatar, that will hold one million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel. This will somewhat reduce any immediate effects of Israeli sanctions. Qatar also intends to build a large mosque and an office tower to serve as the headquarters of its delegation in Gaza. The plot allocated for this by Hamas is where the helicopter landing pad for Yasser Arafat was located at the beginning of the Oslo talks. This decision is already causing protests by Fatah decrying the erasure of Palestinian history.

Developments in Gaza are also affected by other arenas. In Jerusalem, there were attempts to cool things down on Temple Mount, despite last week’s violent incidents. According to a compromise being hammered out by Israel, Jordan and the Waqf, the Bab al-Rahma structure will be closed for renovations for a lengthy period, after which it will serve as offices for the Waqf (and ostensibly not for prayers). In practice, it’s obvious that Israel yielded here and avoided a sharp response to a unilateral Palestinian action, partly with a mind to the upcoming election. Hamas has not yet given up on stoking this fire. The organization called for a day of protest on Thursday around the issue of Friday prayers on Temple Mount.

In prisons, an “ultimatum” given by leaders of Palestinian security prisoners ran out on Thursday. They had demanded that the Prison Service remove devices that had been installed in several security wings to scramble cellular phones used by prisoners. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he would not yield on this issue, which may herald a resumption of protests by prison inmates.

At the Palestinian Authority, Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is taking an “all-or-nothing” line. Abu-Mazen [Abbas] is standing firm on totally rejecting tax rebates transferred from Israel, in response to a cabinet decision to slash these by half a billion shekels (as retribution for Palestinian Authority payments to terrorists incarcerated by Israel and their families). The PA has reduced by half the salaries it pays public servants and may find itself in a severe economic slump in two months due to these decisions. This week, a meeting with economists was held at the chairman’s office, in which and graphs highlighting the extent of the damage were presented. The PA is now discussing partial solutions based on buoying the local West Bank economy in order to reduce its dependence on Israeli goods in areas where there are Palestinian substitutes. This seems optimistic, bordering on the naive. The Palestinian Authority’s economic situation is on the edge of a precipice, and Israel is the one who helped push it there.

File photo: An Iron Dome missile defense battery in central Israel.
Hadar Cohen

The same dance on the edge of an abyss is taking place in Gaza – but there the friction is more military than economic. “We live from Friday to Friday, from one round of demonstrations to the next,” say sources in the military’s Southern Command. “Much now depends on what we used to call the strategy-deciding corporal, where one local incident could lead to a major crisis.” Netanyahu revealed some of his intentions at a Likud caucus meeting this week, where he defended his decision to allow Qatari payments to be shipped to Gaza. A continued flow of money, he told Knesset members, serves the goal of preventing a Palestinian state, since it strengthens the isolation of Hamas in Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Here, even in the midst of an election campaign, one can sometimes hear a smidgen of truth.

File photo: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the southern border with Egypt at Nitzana, Israel, March 7, 2019.
Jim Hollander/AP