Analysis |

Gaza Front Was Relatively Quiet for a Short While. Here's What's Igniting It Again

The quiet across the border rests on thin ice, senior Israeli army commanders say ■ How the Israeli army leaked the assassination of a top Palestinian terrorist

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant looks out of a vehicle during a military show in the Gaza Strip on October 3, 2019.
A Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant looks out of a vehicle during a military show in the Gaza Strip on October 3, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

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While Lebanon is erupting, blood is being spilled in the streets of Iraqi cities – while Israel and Iran have not stopped exchanging threats – and the Gaza Strip is still quiet, or at least as quiet as Gaza can be. For two months, the number of incidents in Gaza has been very small, after being tempestuous for almost a year and a half.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 45Credit: Haaretz

A brief reminder: After Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, which ended in late August 2014 in a disappointing draw, three and a half years of relative calm prevailed along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The leaders of Hamas in Gaza relied on a flow of international financial aid to rebuild the Strip, and in general worked to preserve the relative calm, also out of the understanding that another outbreak would be too much for the Gazan public to bear, in view of the destruction caused by Israel during the last operation.

But the money took its time in coming and the frustration in Gaza climbed, until the explosion on Land Day at the end of March 2018. The public’s desperation was met by the distress of the leadership, and they quickly climbed on for a ride on the back of this tiger, out of a fear that otherwise the tiger would turn on them, too.

This is why Hamas led dozens of violent protests, every Friday, along the border fence. Over 300 Gazans have been killed since they began, most of them protesters who were shot by IDF snipers during attempts to break through the border fence. But the demonstrations began to run out of momentum. Recently the numbers of protesters were relatively low, about 5,000 a week, and the level of friction with the IDF has dropped. A debate has begun inside Hamas on the benefits of continuing the demonstrations. They had few achievements, while at the same time the burden imposed on the Gazan health system by the thousands wounded by IDF sniper fire has become unbearable.

It is possible that because of the symbolic importance the public in Gaza attributes to the protests, it has not yet been decided to stop them completely. But the participants’ drop in motivation and the reduced influence of the protests is very clear. The number of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip has also fallen during these past few months. At the same time, the Qatari cash has continued to flow into Gaza as usual, some $30 million a month. The last monthly payment was transferred at the beginning of the week, and the media’s interest in it was limited.

The understanding among senior Hamas officials that the Arab press’ main interest is now in places far away from Gaza, more volatile – firstly in Lebanon and Iraq – could possibly be contributing to the restraint. Still, it would be appropriate to mention what is always true about Gaza: This direction could change in the blink of an eye, as a result of casualties in a specific incident, or from an Israeli initiative. The quiet rests on very thin and fragile ice, said senior IDF officers this week.

It is worth paying attention to two related phenomena: One is exemplified by an incident the IDF Spokesman’s Office reported in a laconic fashion on Tuesday. Israel Air Force jets intercepted a drone flying at an altitude of 12,000 feet near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. This was the first evidence of such an exceptional capability in Gaza, and it points to a certain amount of technological progress in the capabilities of the terrorist organizations in the Strip. A flight at such an altitude can interfere with Israeli drone operations in the south, or provide an opening for intelligence gathering operations – or even an attack by the Palestinians in the future.

The second issue is related to Baha Abu al-Ata, commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the northern Gaza Strip. For a long time he has been conducting an independent policy, provocative toward Israel, while ignoring the pressure Hamas is putting on his organization. Ata was behind most of the temporary eruptions with Israel that have occurred over the past few months. In at least one case, rockets were launched at southern Israel in response to Israeli attacks in Syria and Lebanon, with Iranian encouragement. If there is someone who is capable of ruining the temporary calm in the Gaza Strip, it is Ata.

Loose lips

In the months of October and November 1994, Israel went through a particularly frenzied period, in security terms, even in comparison to today.

At the height of the Oslo process, when the Palestinian Authority received control of Gaza and Jericho and was negotiating with Israel over the possibility of taking control over the cities of the West Bank, dramatic events occurred at an almost daily pace.

Within a period of just over two weeks, the Israel-Jordan peace agreement was signed; IDF soldier Nahshon Waxman was kidnapped and murdered by a Hamas cell, and Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin took full responsibility for the failed rescue attempt, something that today would be considered unimaginable; lethal suicide bombings struck on the No. 5 bus on Dizengoff Street in the center of Tel Aviv and at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip; and in Malta, Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad organization, was shot and killed by unknown assassins. The period is remembered as a long nightmare, without sleep or a respite to breathe, for politicians and their advisers, the security forces and journalists.

The series of events started on October 26, 1994 with the assassination in Malta, which today is openly attributed to the Mossad. It happened over the weekend, and the way Haaretz learned about it was rather strange. One reporter, a business writer, called the news desk on Saturday afternoon, told them that a Palestinian terrorist had been killed in Malta, and even knew the name that appeared in the passport he was carrying – a fake identity.

A feverish search of the news “tickers,” the news agencies feeds (the internet was in its early days and no usable websites could yet be found), led a few hours later to a very short report on the mysterious death of a Libyan citizen named Ibrahim Shawesh the day before. In the evening the fog was finaly lifted: Channel 1 military correspondent Alon Ben-David reported that the dead man was Shikaki, who was considered to be the sole ruler of his organization – and his removal definitely impaired Islamic Jihad’s capabilities for a relatively long time.

So what was the connection between the business reporter and the initial report on a secret assassination operation, hours before anyone had heard about it, and certainly before its significance became clear to the public? Checking up with him today provides a rather prosaic explanation, but still quite remarkable: It turns out the reporter was doing reserve duty in Nablus in the West Bank at the time, on routine duty in the field. A few hours before the killing, the soldiers in his reserve company were told to increase their alertness because an escalation was expected in the city because of an event “that you will hear about on the news.”

It seems someone in the IDF was confused about the classification level of the information and for passing it on to people who were not really relevant. This is how an unknown company of reservists in Nablus received too detailed information, much too early, about a top secret operation attributed to the Mossad. Twenty-five years later, it is hard to find out the source of the mistake, but it is still startling to see how such a confidential detail leaked out with such a lack of caution. The startup nation excels in secret intelligence operations? This is just half the picture. Sometimes Israel acts like an incompetent gang, whose successes rest on more than a little bit of luck.

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