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May 31, 2018 12:45 pm

War or Peace? The Choice Rests With Hamas

avatar by Yoav Limor / JNS.org

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Members of Hamas security forces carry a coffin containing the body of Palestinian engineering lecturer Fadi al-Batsh in the southern Gaza Strip on April 26, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

JNS.org — 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. They say that 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 “March of Return” ‎that Hamas unleashed on the border two weeks ago ‎to mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the “catastrophe” of the Arabs’ defeat in ‎Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Only several thousand marchers took part, with around 60 Palestinians — most of them terrorists — killed. Since then, ‎Hamas’ border-riot campaign has 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 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 rocket salvo, ‎but there is no doubt that Hamas gave it the green light. ‎

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Hamas gambled that Israel would ‎mount the obligatory measured response, and this would end the current round. But Israel mounted a large response instead, striking ‎dozens of terror hubs and destroying a Hamas ‎tunnel in southern Gaza. Hamas was pressured ‎to respond, both by its own members and the other ‎terrorist groups in Gaza. In a bid to maintain ‎control, Hamas decided to join the ‎fray.‎

One defense official called it the “Fatah syndrome,” ‎saying that Hamas’ 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 avoid long-range attacks on larger cities like 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 to 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 Israeli military is ready for ‎that to happen, but it still prefers to avoid a ‎war if possible.‎

Egypt and Qatar played roles as brokers on 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 ‎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 frustration. Given Hamas’ failure to ‎provide Gazans with any solutions, it can go on one ‎of two paths: a ceasefire or war. Both options are still on the table.‎

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

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