(February 24, 2020 / JNS) Sunday night’s wild rocket attack on the western Negev and Gaza-envelope communities forced Israel into an uncomfortable corner at an inconvenient time. Contrary to its stated desire to maintain calm in the south, Israel had to act, but with the clear intention of keeping the ceasefire with Hamas intact and avoiding a wide-scale escalation on the eve of the country’s March 2 general election.
This time, too, Palestinian Islamic Jihad was behind the mayhem, similar to its previous efforts over the past year-and-a-half (and on the eve of the last election in September) to torpedo any attempt by the sides to reach an agreement. It doesn’t matter whether these efforts stem from an internal rivalry with Hamas, PIJ’s natural anarchist tendencies or directives from its Iranian master, the result is the same: PIJ is currently the primary source of Gaza’s ills.
Those who thought that the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata in November would mute the organization were proven wrong in recent days. Despite Egypt’s overt efforts to mediate a ceasefire, the organization’s belligerence hasn’t waned. Last week, a terrorist cell was wiped out on the southern Gaza border, and early Sunday morning, a second cell was eliminated when its members tried planting a bomb by the border fence.
The rocket fire on Sunday was PIJ’s response to these incidents. Officially, PIJ says it retaliated for the “humiliation” of the Israel Defense Forces using a bulldozer to retrieve the body of one of these killed terrorists. However, this is not a new Israeli policy: For decades now, the IDF has taken the bodies of terrorists from the battlefield to be used in future prisoner-exchange negotiations. The difference on Sunday was that the fight between IDF forces and Palestinians, who tried preventing the army from taking the corpse, was caught on film. The images stoked the flames and provided ample pretext for PIJ’s attempt at revenge.
It wasn’t clear on Sunday whether Hamas opposed the rocket fire at Israel or was turning a blind eye to it. After al-Ata’s assassination, Hamas allowed PIJ to retaliate, but stayed out of the fray itself. On Sunday, too, Hamas wasn’t involved in the rocket attacks, and its conduct in the coming hours and days will greatly determine which direction the situation is heading. If it stays out of the fight, it’s reasonable to assume hostilities will quickly fizzle.
This also depends, to a great degree, on the nature of the Israeli response. No one in Israel has an appetite for a large-scale military operation, whose outcome is uncertain, on the eve of an election. But on the other hand, Israel has to respond in some capacity to the rocket barrage. Not just because of the election, but first and foremost for the sake of deterrence, which the IDF has struggled to maintain over time against PIJ.
Moving forward, the question on Sunday wasn’t whether to respond, but how, and mostly how hard. Expectedly, the IDF’s main target was PIJ, but the dilemma remains of whether or not to target Hamas, as the entity responsible for Gaza. Because the primary Israeli interest was and still is securing peace and quiet in Gaza and avoiding a dire escalation, we can expect an effort (overt and covert) to try ending the current round of hostilities as quickly as possible.
It’s safe to assume Hamas has a similar interest, because of its stated desire for a ceasefire. The organization in recent days received an array of benefits—the expansion of the fishing zone off the Gaza coast and an increase of the number of permits for Gazans to work in Israel. Later this week, Hamas is also slated to receive another cash shipment from Qatar (which, as reported, Israel played a key role in arranging). An escalation at this juncture means revoking all these benefits, which would exacerbate the economic situation in Gaza—the exact opposite of what Hamas says it wants.
The Egyptians, as usual, will be called upon to help calm the situation, along with the U.N. mission to Gaza. They’ve likely already engaged with the sides, but will only be able to make progress after the current tit-for-tat subsides. Even then, as we’ve learned time and again in recent weeks, any understandings reached must be taken with a sizable grain of salt. Gaza is extremely easy on the trigger and, as evidenced Monday afternoon, won’t hesitate to pull it again.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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