(May 30, 2018 / JNS) This week’s mortar fire on southern Israel is the gravest security escalation on the Israel-Gaza border since “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014, though Israeli defense officials believe that Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, can still avoid a full-fledged military conflict, In fact, they say the choice of what happens next is in the hands of Hamas.
This escalation did not happen overnight. It began with the failure of the so-called “Million Man March” Hamas planned to unleash on the border two weeks ago to mark “Nakba Day,” which commemorates the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The “million men” ended up being only several thousand, and ended up with fatalities and injuries. Since then, Hamas’s border-riot campaign has also been dwindling.
To try to maintain friction with Israeli security forces, Hamas has spared no effort to turn the border area into a terrorist zone, and has given its operatives—and Palestinian protesters—a free hand to carry out terrorist attacks, including hurling firebombs, sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, and placing explosives on the security fence.
Israeli shelling in response to one of these attacks killed three Islamic Jihad operatives. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for Tuesday morning’s salvo, citing retaliation, but there is no doubt Hamas gave it the green light.
Hamas gambled that Israel would mount the obligatory measured response, and that this would end the current round. This is why its operatives were not involved in any rocket fire then.
But Israel mounted a large response instead, striking dozens of terror hubs and destroying a Hamas terror tunnel in southern Gaza. Hamas was pressured to respond, both by its own members and the other terrorist groups in Gaza, and, in a bid to maintain control, it decided to join the fire spree.
One defense official called it the “Fatah syndrome,” saying that Hamas’s biggest fear is being perceived, like its rival faction Fatah, as doing nothing to take part in the Palestinian struggle.
Still, Hamas made it clear to its operatives that their fire must be limited to the Israeli communities near the border, and that they must avoid a wider range that could compromise larger cities, such as Ashdod, Beersheva and even Tel Aviv.
Israeli defense officials debated the intensity of Israel’s response, but it was widely believed that decisive action was needed to make it clear to Hamas that a red line had been crossed.
From a public diplomacy standpoint, Israel placed responsibility for the escalation in the south on Hamas and Iran, which sponsors the terror organization and spurs it into action. Islamic Jihad was also condemned to a lesser degree, despite its direct involvement. Israel was careful and sought to avoid Palestinian casualties as much as possible.
The Israeli response was meant mostly to give Hamas the necessary leeway to contain the situation before it spirals out of control. Naturally, the Israel military is ready for that to happen, but it still prefers to avoid a wide-ranging military campaign if possible.
Egypt and Qatar played roles as brokers Tuesday, to little effect. The decision of where to go from here remains with Hamas. If it mounts a minor response to the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, Israel will be able to pull back. But if the mortar and rocket salvos continue, the IDF will retaliate forcibly, and the situation could easily deteriorate from there.
The prevailing view in Israel is that Hamas has no interest in such escalation, but its conduct currently is confused and erratic, which is a recipe for mistakes.
Even if an escalation is avoided, this is hardly the end of the story. Gaza is on the brink of eruption for a variety of reasons, most notably the dire economic and humanitarian situation, coupled with growing political and political frustration. Given Hamas’s failure to provide Gazans with any solutions, it can go on one of two paths: a cease-fire or war. Both options are still on the table.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.