The Gaza border was again swept by a wave of violence after the freeze of another transfer of $15 million from Qatar to Hamas officials and the worsening of the conflict between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The tension increased after the continued arrest of Fatah activists in Gaza and the removal of P.A. officers from the Rafah border crossing.
On the night of Saturday, Jan. 12, a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel. It exploded in an open field in the Sdot Negev Regional Council. In response, the IDF attacked two underground networks in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’s war of attrition with Israel has been going on for 42 weeks. The number of participants in demonstrations on Friday reached 13,000 in several places. Demonstrators burned tires, attacked the border fence, and threw stones and explosives at IDF soldiers in an attempt to get through the fence into Israeli territory. A Palestinian woman was killed, and another 25 Palestinians were injured from IDF gunfire, including two journalists and a paramedic. An IDF soldier was lightly injured due to stone-throwing.
The area was “volatile,” even though an Egyptian security delegation had already arrived in Gaza on Jan. 10. The delegation met with the Hamas leadership to calm the mood and attempt to prevent escalation on the border with Israel, and tension between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
According to Hamas sources, the Egyptian delegation explained to the Hamas leadership that it intended to leave the Rafah crossing open in both directions and Israel would stand by its commitment to calm, including the transfer of Qatari funds to Hamas officials. None of this helped. The escalated violence continued, and the IDF was compelled to attack Hamas positions twice from the air in the area of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the violent demonstrations.
Hamas again removed its restraints and allowed demonstrators to run riot, approach the border fence, and attack the IDF soldiers to signal to Israel that the situation at the Gaza border is very fragile and if the Qatari money does not reach its officials, the security stability in Gaza will deteriorate even further. This followed the firing of a rocket at Ashkelon and the dispatch of a booby-trapped drone into the Gaza periphery during the previous week.
The newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported on Jan. 12 that according to a senior Egyptian source, Israel asked Egypt to leave the Rafah Crossing open due to concerns over an escalation at the Gaza border and a renewal of terrorist attacks. Apparently, Egypt has agreed to Israel’s request because it also wants to implement an arrangement for calm. However, Hamas is continuing with its policy of extortion from Israel by exploiting Israel’s desire to maintain calm during the pre-elections period.
Egypt’s security delegation has not yet left the area. According to Hamas sources, it is also supposed to meet with the P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqata in Ramallah, as well as with senior figures in the Israeli security service.
The Egyptian delegation will try to persuade Abbas to return the P.A. officials to the Rafah Crossing. If this doesn’t happen, it’s not yet clear whether Egypt will keep its promise to Hamas that the crossing will remain open in both directions.
Egyptian intervention is very important due to reports from Gaza that a new organization will refinance the “tires unit,” the “balloons unit” and the “night confusion units” so that they can operate again close to the Gaza border. Hamas is indicating to Israel and Egypt that its activists are always ready “with their finger on the trigger” to act against Israel if their demands are not met.
It is doubtful whether the third transfer of Qatari funds will lead to a decrease in the level of violence along the Gaza Strip. Hamas will not be satisfied with that, as it has not yet succeeded in keeping its promises to Gazan public that the “March of Return” campaign that has gone on for nine months will lead to the complete removal of the embargo from Gaza.
Hamas has achieved very little. The freeze on the transfer of Qatari funds will continue, which will increase the chances of an escalation of terrorist activities on the Gaza border even more during the coming weeks.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.