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June 4, 2018 9:54 am

Gaza Is on Borrowed Time

avatar by Yoav Limor / JNS.org

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An Israeli tank patrols the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip. May 29, 2018. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

JNS.org – It was hard to find anyone in Israel who believed that the ‎ceasefire reached between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday ‎would last very long. Conventional wisdom says that this is, at ‎best, a temporary lull — and it won’t be long before Gaza terrorists ‎resume rocket fire on Israel. ‎

After nearly four mostly calm years, it seems that something in the ‎balance struck between Israel and Hamas has shifted. The ‎border riots of the past few weeks have proven that Israel ‎maintains its strong deterrence vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip — otherwise another military campaign would have already taken ‎place — but anyone who believes that we can turn back time to the ‎pre-riots calm on the security fence is mistaken.‎

Israel and Hamas are at a crossroads. “Temperature on the ‎ground is rising by the day,” a senior defense official told Israel ‎Hayom. “There are fewer and fewer checks and balances in ‎Gaza, and a greater willingness to take risks.”

This does not ‎mean that Gaza’s rulers are hell-bent on provoking another war, the source said, but ‎it does mean that unless a way is found to release the pressure ‎there, they will be left with no other alternative. ‎

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Last Tuesday’s mortar-shell salvo on Israeli communities near the ‎border was rooted in several things, including the events of the ‎past few weeks, as well as what has been transpiring in Gaza in ‎general since Operation Protective Edge concluded in the ‎summer of 2014. ‎

Four years after that 50-day campaign, Gaza is experiencing an ‎unprecedented slump: its infrastructure is crumbling, its ‎economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring, and overall ‎morale is at an all-time low. ‎

Hamas has all but admitted that it is unable to properly rule the ‎coastal enclave, that its assurances of a better future for Gaza ‎were false, and that all of its promises and slogans were hollow. ‎Hamas has hoped to reconcile with rival faction Fatah, but just ‎like previous efforts to mend the 10-year rift between the two, ‎the latest attempt failed over the Palestinian Authority’s demand ‎that the Islamist terrorist group disarm and its security ‎forces integrate with those loyal to the PA, which would then ‎assume administrative responsibility for Gaza and its ‎rehabilitation.‎

Israel may love to hate PA leader Mahmoud ‎Abbas, but he is nobody’s fool. Had he capitulated to Hamas’ ‎demands to allow it to maintain the powerful al-Qassam ‎Brigades as is, he would have buried the PA twice: once in ‎Gaza, where he would have been left with all the responsibility ‎for its many problems while Hamas would have been ‎celebrated as the heroes of the Palestinian resistance; and a ‎second time in the West Bank, where such capitulation would ‎have allowed Hamas to gain popularity at Fatah’s expense. ‎

It is unclear whether Abbas ever had any intention of bailing out ‎Gaza or just wanted to stifle it further, but when facing off with ‎Hamas, he refused to blink. The result was that, as always, ‎Israel was left holding the bag. ‎

No way out

Hamas sought alternative solutions to the situation: Qatari ‎money, Egyptian mediation, even some futile contact with ‎Western countries. Then, of course, there was its permanent ‎flirtation with Iran, which yielded some financial assistance, but ‎less than Tehran’s aid to Hamas’ rival in Gaza, Islamic ‎Jihad.‎

With its back against the wall again, Hamas turned back to the ‎tried and true method of provoking friction with Israel. First, there ‎was civilian friction, dating back to President Trump’s December 6 ‎decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American ‎embassy there, and then came the military friction on the fence ‎with the border riots, which escalated into last week’s mortar ‎barrage. ‎

Hamas marked several milestones over the past six months — namely, the violent riots of March 30, when the Palestinians ‎marked “Land Day”; the launch of its border-riot campaign; and ‎the mass May 14 demonstration protesting the relocation of the ‎embassy. The violence was ‎supposed to peak on May 15 during a “million-man march” on ‎the border to mark Nakba Day — the “catastrophe” of ‎Palestinian ‎‎‎displacement during Israel’s 1948 War of ‎‎‎Independence — which ‎fizzled, to a great extent, thanks to Egyptian mediation. Since then, ‎the number of Palestinians rioting on the border every Friday has ‎been steadily declining. ‎

These events proved two things: first, that Hamas is ‎experiencing distress and may resort to violence; and second, that it has absolute control of Gaza and can spark or quash ‎violent flare-ups at will. ‎

In an attempt to maintain constant friction with Israel, the past ‎few weeks have seen Hamas turn the border-adjacent area into ‎a terrorist zone. It began with incendiary kites that wreaked ‎havoc on farmland and forests in nearby Israel communities, ‎deteriorated into the hurling of firebombs and shooting at IDF soldiers, and escalated into placing explosives on the security ‎fence.‎

The latter was the work of Islamic Jihad; in retaliation, the IDF shelled one ‎of its positions in Gaza, killing three operatives. ‎

Islamic Jihad vowed to exact revenge and many believe ‎that Tuesday’s massive mortar barrage (more than 130 projectiles) was ‎carried out on orders from Tehran, relayed via Islamic Jihad’s ‎headquarters in Damascus. This was probably intended to pin Israel to ‎its southern sector in an attempt to make it ease its efforts to ‎stop Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. ‎

While this is most likely true, Iranian instigation is not the only ‎explanation. Islamic Jihad has a fuse of its own and it was cut ‎short this week. The last time that Israel dealt the group a blow — destroying an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel in October and killing 12 ‎of its operatives — the group waited a long time to retaliate and ‎had little to show for it. So this time, they wanted to ensure a ‎different result. ‎

If anything, Israel should be troubled by the calculations that ‎drove Islamic Jihad. A mortar salvo at IDF posts along the ‎southern sector is one thing, as those would seemingly be ‎legitimate targets — in the vein of a post for a post, and a soldier ‎for an operative — but targeting civilian communities and the ‎narrow miss of a kindergarten in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha is ‎something that could have ended in disaster. ‎

It is unclear why Islamic Jihad thought Israel would contain this ‎escalation. It is equally unclear what Hamas was thinking when it ‎allowed Islamic Jihad to so blatantly break the rules for a day.‎

The harsh Israeli response, which included striking 65 terror ‎targets in broad daylight, put Hamas on the spot. Suddenly, ‎Hamas found itself in the same position as Fatah — that of a ruler ‎wary of confrontation with Israel, which therefore leaves such confrontation to ‎other groups. ‎

The Palestinian street demanded retaliation, social media raged, but the ruling terrorist group stayed on the sidelines ‎for hours before allowing its operatives to join the fray. Hamas ‎did, however, make sure to follow the familiar rules, firing only at ‎border-adjacent communities and not at larger Israeli cities. This ‎was a careful move meant to signal to Israel that it too was in ‎play. ‎

But behind the scenes, Hamas was playing a different game. It ‎reached out to Israel via Egypt on Tuesday, and asked for ‎immediate truce and later even claimed one had been achieved. ‎Israel refused to negotiate, giving Hamas the standard reply: If ‎you stop your attacks, the IDF will cease its strikes. Meanwhile, ‎the military used the opportunity to destroy dozens of Hamas ‎positions, especially those linked to its military buildup. Hamas ‎got the message and ceased all fire from Gaza by Wednesday ‎morning. ‎

The Israeli dilemma ‎

The mood in Israel’s southern communities on Wednesday ‎illustrated the Israeli dilemma perfectly. In Sderot, where ‎residents spent the night in shelters, there was a demand for ‎decisive action against Hamas, while most Gaza-vicinity ‎communities sought to end this round of hostilities and resume a ‎normal routine.‎

Israel moved between these two extremes, prepared ‎for immediate and extensive action in Gaza, including reinforcing ‎military units, deploying countermeasures, and reviewing ‎operational orders, all while being equally prepared to cease all ‎operations.‎

But national security priorities mandate the Israeli decision be ‎strategic, not tactical. If the Iranian threat is a top priority, then Israel ‎cannot be dragged into an escalation in the south and must ‎remain focused on its northern sector. This is also true with ‎regard to Gaza. Something there has been broken beyond ‎repair. There needs to be another way, which can be one of two ‎things: a wide-scale military campaign or long-term calm.‎

Preliminary, Egyptian-mediated negotiations exploring the ‎second option have been underway over the last few weeks. ‎Hamas has signaled that given the right incentives, it would be ‎willing to make far-reaching concessions, including on its military ‎wing. ‎

The road to any understandings with Hamas is likely to be ‎fraught with crises and may even include fighting on the ground, ‎but this option must be seriously explored, if only because it is ‎the government’s responsibility to exhaust all options before ‎going to war. ‎

Any such ceasefire will exact a price from both sides. Israel will ‎be required to allow rehabilitation projects in Gaza and may ‎potentially have to green light a prisoner exchange to secure the ‎return of two Israelis held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two ‎IDF soldiers. However, given the dire situation in Gaza, Israel will ‎be able to pressure Hamas into making quite a few concessions, ‎including on its military buildup. The devil will be in the details ‎and their implementation on the ground, but the overall ‎assessment is that this is doable. ‎

Given this prospect, it is unclear what drove some Israeli cabinet ‎ministers to raise the level of threats in the media. After all, they ‎are familiar with the situation and the military plans and they ‎know that seizing control of the Gaza Strip, toppling the Hamas ‎regime, and eliminating its leaders were never even considered. ‎On the contrary, Israel sought to return the dilemma to Gaza ‎and let the Palestinians deal with the headache, so that if Hamas ‎opted for further escalation it would be held accountable for the ‎consequences, or if it opted for a truce, it ‎would do so from a position of weakness.‎

This dilemma is expected to rear its head again this week on June 5, ‎when Palestinians mourn the Arab defeat in the 1967 ‎Six Day War. Border riots are expected, and in the following days ‎the Palestinians are likely to try to challenge Israeli troops on ‎the security fence. Events on the border have a far more volatile ‎potential now, as Tuesday’s mortar barrage set the bar for the ‎launching point of the next round of hostilities. ‎

This is also the reason why the IDF maintains high alert in the ‎southern sector. ‎

The most recent deployment was led by outgoing GOC Southern Command Maj. ‎Gen. Eyal Zamir, who will be replaced by Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi ‎on June 6. History has shown that early June is prone to military ‎conflicts: the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967 and the ‎Lebanon War on June 6, 1982. The coming days will show ‎whether June 2018 will join the list or mark a turning point for ‎the southern sector.

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

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