It’s the old, tired story: Hamas attacks the residents of the western Negev to pressure Israel’s government into solving the terrorist group’s problems.
This has been Hamas’s tactic since the border riots began in 2018. After all of its attempts to convince Arab and Western states to help the impoverished, battered Gaza Strip following Israel’s 2014 “Operation Protective Edge,” Hamas moved on to extortion: putting pressure on Israel.
That method has worked well for the past two-and-a-half years. The border protests and the incendiary- and explosives-laden balloons that came after them prompted the Israeli government to broker a deal whereby Qatar sends Gaza monthly infusions of cash. At first, it was $5 million, then $10 million, and now it’s $30 million every month. In practice, this money serves to oil the wheels of the enormous machine Hamas has built in Gaza, and some of it—despite what the donors intended—also goes towards terrorism.
But this monthly aid is supposed to end in September. The money for August has already been transferred, and no one knows what will happen next. Will the money keep flowing, and if so, for how long? Hamas is worried that it will be left without what is nearly the only assistance it receives and so has resumed harassing Israel to force it to solve the problem.
Money is the main issue on the table, but not the only one. There are also a series of infrastructure projects that are very important to Hamas (they range from an industrial zone to an electricity grid) and which Hamas says are being unreasonably delayed. Likewise, the organization hopes that what months of talks for a long-term arrangement couldn’t accomplish, some fraught days of arson balloons and ensuing wildfires will. And if that doesn’t help, Hamas will go back to its nightly disturbances, setting off explosions near western Negev communities to wake up and shake up the residents. It might also reinstate the Friday border protests.
Hamas is also upping the pressure because of the coronavirus crisis. Not only have they lost the ear of the international community, but due to the pandemic, the 7,000 Gazans who have visas to work in Israel are stuck in Gaza. Israel would be willing to let them in, but Hamas is worried that they will contract the virus and bring it back, causing a mass outbreak. The decision is understandable from a medical perspective but carries difficult financial ramifications. Less money is coming into Gaza, and many residents have been left without a livelihood.
All of this can teach us a few things. First, Hamas is in real financial trouble, verging on desperation. Second, that Hamas is fully in control of Gaza and what happens there, and can start or stop terror attacks against Israel at will. Third, Hamas does not want an escalation or a war—it wants a solution, and the steps it is taking are carefully calculated to avoid Israeli casualties. The organization thinks Israel can “live with them.”
Israel understands that and is responding in kind. Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes over the past few days were mainly intended as a signal and deterrent. Tuesday’s step of closing the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing is a more serious one, and it puts real pressure on Hamas in terms of the most sensitive issue for it—the continuance of routine life in Gaza. If the arson balloons continue, we will probably see additional steps from Israel, but ones that will ensure that the situation does not deteriorate.
The rhetoric voiced by Israel’s political and defense leadership on Tuesday was tough, and backed up by fighter jets and missiles, but no one in the Israeli government wants an escalation with Gaza. The opposite: Attempts were being made late Tuesday to help Hamas out of the corner into which it has backed itself and restore calm to the western Negev. But something could still go wrong. At the end of the day, everyone is playing with fire.
Gaza’s problems run too deep to solve them one by one. In the absence of a major strategic move that would entail either a broad agreement or a massive military action, nothing will really be solved, and sooner or later, we’ll see a rerun of the same old show.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.