(March 28, 2019 / JNS) Hamas is set to hold a mass march this Saturday to the Gazan-Israeli border to mark “Land Day,” an event that has the potential to transform into mass disturbances, which, in turn, could reignite Gazan rocket fire and Israeli military strikes.
In such a scenario, Israel may decide that air power alone is no longer sufficient to extinguish the rocket threat terrorizing southern Israeli civilians.
As a result, the Israel Defense Forces is keeping its massed infantry, artillery and armored units parked right on Gaza’s border, pointed at Hamas. The forces are ready at a moment’s notice to launch a ground maneuver to attack Hamas’s military wing in response to a new escalation.
These scenes are the latest act in a year-long Hamas campaign aimed at using controlled violence to achieve goals, in what Col. (ret.) Reuven Erlich, director of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, described as a “kind of a war of attrition.”
“On March 30 a year ago, Hamas changed its policy, ending the relative quiet that existed from ‘Operation Protective Edge’ [in 2014] to that point,” Erlich told JNS. Up to that time, there were very few rocket attacks out of Gaza, he noted, describing this period as “the quietist time since Hamas came to power [in 2007].”
For a variety of reasons, Hamas then shifted its policy, initiating “controlled pressure,” said Erlich, based on the goal of shattering the calm, but avoiding a full-scale war with Israel.
“Hamas assesses that Israel, too, does not want to get dragged into a war. So it uses a variety of forms of violence—from border-rioting and sabotaging the security fence, sending explosives over the border tied to balloons, cross-border intrusions, rockets and rounds of escalation,” he stated.
With Hamas controlling the level of violence in line with its interests, the latest escalation, which began when a Hamas rocket destroyed an Israeli home north of Tel Aviv on March 25 and injured seven of its family members, now appears to be coming to a close. The Israel Air Force struck several multi-story Hamas buildings in Gaza, leaving sites such as the offices of Hamas senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh in ruins, as well as Hamas’s military intelligence building and the headquarters of the regime’s internal security forces.
A shaky unofficial ceasefire, mediated by Egypt, took hold on Wednesday, though it began with much uncertainty, after an unidentified Gazan group broke it by firing rockets at southern Israel’s Eshkol region. This triggered IAF retaliation strikes on Hamas complexes, including a weapons’ production facility, and Hamas responded with rocket fire on Ashkelon overnight. In total, Gazan armed factions fired 60 projectiles at southern Israel, with Iron Dome air defense batteries intercepting many that were heading into populated areas.
As the violence tapered off on Wednesday, Erlich warned that it could easily reignite on Saturday. “I would estimate that tens of thousands of Gazans will take part in the march. There could be lots of grenade-throwing, rioting and the potential for new rockets,” said Erlich.
Asked what he made of claims by Hamas sources that Monday’s rocket attack on an Israeli village well north of Tel Aviv was the result of a “mistake,” Erlich said “I am a very small believer in such mistakes. From ‘Operation Protective Edge’ until recently, there were no mistakes. Now, there are multiple mistakes, and all sorts of rebellious Gazan groups outside of the Gaza consensus are also firing rockets. The important context is that in Gaza today, there is an atmosphere of violence towards Israel. I personally doubt this is a coincidence.”
The threat of future escalations morphing into a war is “very real,” he cautioned. “Hamas does not want to go all the way. But they are hitting the breaks less,” he said.
Hamas is ‘stuck in a maze of problems’
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence, said it was important to examine the bigger picture of recent events.
“Hamas’s situation is that it is stuck in a maze of problems that it does not know how to get out of,” he said. “Sometimes, when it wants to ‘shout for help,’ it goes for the option of firing on Israel.”
Monday’s long-range rocket attack was not necessarily ordered by the Hamas leadership, but if someone in Hamas carried it out, “the rules of the game are that once the act is done, they close ranks and support it. They do not criticize action against ‘the cruel occupier,’ ” explained Kuperwasser.
Either way, Hamas’s situation is “severe,” he said. “Sure, they can hit Israel with rockets, but that does not alleviate their distress. They are in this position because of pressure from Egypt, from [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas, because of problems they have in improving life for Gaza’s population and because this population is coming out against them,” he assessed.
“They are facing real constraints in their goal of ‘liberating Palestine.’ No one among Hamas’s rank and file thinks they can ‘liberate Palestine’ by firing rockets. They believe they can destroy Israel in the long term, but not the short term,” he added.
Israel, in the meantime, is developing economically and technologically, said Kuperwasser. “Let’s not lose sight of the facts—Israel’s per capita income is 40,000 dollars, and its unemployment rate is 3.7 percent. It has one of the highest standards of living. In Gaza, there are frustrated people who, instead of improving their situation in a positive way, are digging a bigger hole because of strange ideologies and corruption,” he said, describing Hamas’s leadership.
“Clearly, these are frustrated people. Some have demonstrated against Hamas itself. Some fire on Israel. They know it will not improve their situation. Haniyeh said Israel ‘understood the message’ today. What message? The [actual] message is that if Israel hits Hamas hard, they will stop firing. That is the message.”
Israeli civilians living in the vicinity of Gaza are justifiably frustrated with the ongoing security situation, and Israel needs to do more to make it clear to Gaza’s factions that “there is a cost to this limited violence,” said Kuperwasser. “We have not done that, and now we are paying [for it] by absorbing this violence. But this can change.”
Hamas understands that if it pushes Israel too hard, it will provoke a military operation that could threaten the survival of its regime, said Kuperwasser. Asked if Hamas could choose the “Sampson option” of crashing Gaza deliberately into Israel’s hands, the former intelligence officer said, “At this stage, they are clearly not there. That could change in the future, but chances are not high. We must be ready for everything. Israel has plans on what to do in such a case. It very much prefers not to activate them.”