It was hard to find anyone in Israel this week who believed that the cease-fire reached between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday would last very long. Conventional wisdom says that this is, at best, a temporary lull and it won’t be long before Gaza terrorists resume rocket fire on Israel.
After nearly four mostly calm years, it seems something in the balance struck between Israel and Hamas has shifted. The border riots of the past few weeks have proven that Israel maintains its strong deterrence vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip—otherwise another military campaign would have already taken place—but anyone who believes we can turn back time to the pro-riots calm on the security fence is mistaken.
Israel and Hamas are at a crossroads. “Temperature on the ground is rising by the day,” a senior defense official told Israel Hayom. “There are fewer and fewer checks and balances in Gaza and a greater willingness to take risks.” This does not mean that Gaza’s rulers are hell-bent on provoking another war, but it does mean that unless a way is found to release the pressure there, they will be left with no other alternative.
Tuesday’s mortar-shell salvo on the Israeli communities near the border was rooted in several things, including the events of the past few weeks, as well as what has been transpiring in Gaza in general since Operation Protective Edge concluded in the summer of 2014.
Four years after that 50-day campaign, Gaza is experiencing an unprecedented slump: its infrastructure is crumbling, its economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring, and overall morale is at an all-time low.
Hamas has all but admitted that it is unable to properly rule the coastal enclave, that its assurances of a better future for Gaza were false, and that all of its promises and slogans were hollow. Hamas has hoped to reconcile with rival faction Fatah, but just like previous efforts to mend the 10-year rift between the two, the latest attempt failed over the Palestinian Authority’s demand that the Islamist terrorist group disarm and that its security forces integrate with those loyal to the P.A., which would then assume administrative responsibility for Gaza and its rehabilitation.
Israel may love to hate P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, but he is nobody’s fool. Had he capitulated to Hamas’s demands to allow it to maintain the powerful Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades as is, he would have buried the P.A. twice: once in Gaza, where he would have been left with all the responsibility for its myriad of problems while Hamas would have been celebrated as the heroes of the Palestinian resistance; and a second time in the West Bank, where such capitulation would have allowed Hamas to gain popularity at Fatah’s expense.
It is unclear whether Abbas ever had any intention of bailing out Gaza or just wanted to stifle it further, but when facing off with Hamas, he refused to blink. The result was that, as always, Israel was left holding the bag.
No way out
Hamas sought alternative solutions to the situation. Qatari money, Egyptian mediation, even some futile contact with Western countries. Then, of course, there was its permanent flirtation with Iran, which yielded some financial assistance, but one smaller than what Tehran lends Hamas’s rival in Gaza, Islamic Jihad.
With its back against the wall again, Hamas turned back to the tried and true method of provoking friction with Israel. First, there was civilian friction, dating back to U.S. President Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move his embassy there, and then came the military friction on the fence with the border riots, which escalated into this week’s mortar barrage.
Hamas marked several milestones over the past six months—namely, the violent riots of March 30, when the Palestinians marked “Land Day;” the launch of its border-riot campaign; and the mass May 14 demonstration protesting the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The violence was supposed to peak on May 15, during a “million-man march” on the border to mark Nakba Day—the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence—which fizzled, to a great extent thanks to Egyptian mediation. Since then, the number of Palestinian rioting on the border every Friday has been steadily declining.
These events proved two things: first, that Hamas is experiencing distress and may resort to violence; and second, that it has absolute control on Gaza, and can spark or quash violent flare-ups at will.
In an attempt to maintain constant friction with Israel, the past few weeks have seen Hamas turn the border-adjacent area into a terrorist zone. It began with incendiary kites that wreaked havoc on farmland and forests in nearby Israel communities, deteriorated into the hurling of firebombs and shooting at the Israel Defense Forces, and escalated into placing explosives on the security fence last Saturday.
The latter was the work of Islamic Jihad; in retaliation, the IDF shelled one of its positions in Gaza, killing three operatives.
Islamic Jihad vowed to exact revenge and many believe Tuesday’s massive mortar barrage (more than 130 projectiles) was carried out on orders from Tehran, relayed via Islamic Jihad’s headquarters in Damascus. This probably meant to pin Israel to its southern sector in an attempt to make it ease its efforts to stop Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.
While this is most likely true, Iranian instigation is not the only explanation. Islamic Jihad has a fuse of its own and it was cut short this week. The last time that Israel dealt the group a blow—destroying an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel in October and killing 12 of its operatives—the group waited a long time to retaliate and had little to show for it. So this time, they wanted to ensure a different result.
If anything, Israel should be troubled by the calculations that drove the Islamic Jihad. A mortar salvo at IDF posts along the southern sector is one thing, as those would seemingly be legitimate targets—in the vein of a post for a post and a soldier for an operative—but targeting civilian communities and the narrow miss of a kindergarten in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha is something that could have ended with disaster.
It is unclear why Islamic Jihad thought Israel would contain this escalation. It is equally unclear what Hamas was thinking when it allowed Islamic Jihad to so blatantly break the rules for a day.
The harsh Israeli response, which included striking 65 terror targets in broad daylight, put Hamas on the spot. Suddenly, Hamas found itself in the same position of Fatah—that of a ruler wary of a confrontation with Israel, which therefore leaves it to other organizations.
The Palestinian street demanded retaliation, social media riled and raged, but the ruling terrorist group stayed on the sidelines for hours before allowing its operatives to join the fray. Hamas did, however, make sure to follow the familiar rules firing only at border-adjacent communities and not at larger Israeli cities. This was a careful move meant to signal Israel that it, too, was in play.
But behind the scenes, Hamas was playing a different game. It reached out to Israel via Egypt on Tuesday, and asked for immediate truce and later even claimed one had been achieved. Israel refused to negotiate, giving Hamas the standard reply: If you stop your attacks, the IDF will cease its strikes. Meanwhile, the military used the opportunity to destroyed dozens of Hamas positions, especially those linked to its military buildup. Hamas got the message and ceased all fire from Gaza by Wednesday morning.
The Israeli dilemma
The mood in Israel’s southern communities on Wednesday illustrated the Israeli dilemma perfectly. In Sderot, where residents spent the night in shelters, there was a demand for decisive action against Hamas, while most Gaza-vicinity communities sought to end this round of hostilities and resume normal routine.
Israel moved between these two extremes this week, prepared for immediate and extensive action in Gaza, including reinforcing military units, deploying countermeasures and reviewing operational orders, all while being equally prepared to cease all operations.
But national-security priorities mandate the Israeli decision be strategic, not tactical. If the Iranian threat is a top priority, then Israel cannot be dragged into an escalation in the south and must remain focused on its northern sector. This is also true with regard to Gaza. Something there has been broken beyond repair. There needs to be another way, which can be one of two things: a wide-scale military campaign or a long-term calm.
Preliminary, Egyptian-mediated negotiations exploring the second option have been underway over the last few weeks. Hamas has signaled that given the right incentives, it would be willing to make far-reaching concessions, including on its military wing.
The road to any understandings with Hamas is likely to be fraught with crises and may even include fighting on the ground, but this option must be seriously explored, if only because it is the government’s responsibility to exhaust all options before going to war.
Any such cease-fire will exact a price from both sides. Israel will be required to allow rehabilitation projects in Gaza and may potentially have to green light a prisoner exchange to secure the return of two Israelis held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers. However, given the dire situation in Gaza, Israel will be able to pressure Hamas into making quite a few concessions, including over its military buildup. The devil will be in the details and their implementation on the ground, but the overall assessment is that this is doable.
Given this prospect, it is unclear what drove some cabinet ministers to raise the level of threats in the media. After all, they are familiar with the situation and the military plans and they know that seizing control of the Gaza Strip, toppling the Hamas regime and eliminating its leaders were never even considered. On the contrary – Israel sought to return the dilemma to Gaza and let the Palestinians deal with this headache, so that if Hamas opted for further escalation it would be held accountable for its consequence and – on the other hand – if it opted for a truce, it will reach it from a position of weakness.
This dilemma is expected to rear its head again this week, on June 5, “Naksa Day” (the “setback”), when Palestinians mourn the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Border riots are expected, and in the following days, the Palestinians are likely to try to challenge Israeli troops on the security fence. Events on the border have a far more volatile potential now, as Tuesday’s mortar barrage set the bar for the launching point of the next round of hostilities.
This is also the reason why the IDF maintains high alert in the southern sector.
Deployment was led by outgoing GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, who will be replaced by Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi on June 6. History has shown that early June is prone to military conflicts; the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, and the Lebanon War began on June 6, 1982. The coming days will show whether June 2018 will join the list or mark a turning point for the southern sector.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.