Israel and Hamas court catastrophe in high-stakes game of chicken
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Analysis

Israel and Hamas court catastrophe in high-stakes game of chicken

With the PA riding shotgun and Egypt in the backseat, Israel, propelled by a tailwind from the Persian Gulf, dares Hamas to go to war

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Fighters from the Izz-a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror movement, attend a memorial service for a commander killed in an apparently accidental explosion inn the southern Gaza Strip on June 10, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
Fighters from the Izz-a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror movement, attend a memorial service for a commander killed in an apparently accidental explosion inn the southern Gaza Strip on June 10, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

The Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and, to a lesser extent, the Egyptian government are locked in a game of chicken with Hamas, which has brought along the two million unfortunate residents of the Gaza Strip for the ride. This death race is being fueled by a combination of internal Palestinian spats, various Israeli policies, military changes on the ground, and a diplomatic siege in the Gulf. A catastrophic collision seems increasingly likely.

Yet, speaking to the Knesset on Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman indicated that he was unperturbed, noting that the past year was the quietest on the Gaza border since 1967 and that while there have been protests recently along the security fence, they have not been made up of huge, organic crowds but of “Hamas operatives that were bused there.”

He also called for a strategy toward Hamas and Gaza in which Israel “does not blink and does not deviate.”

In light of developments in recent months, the terrorist group is, in many ways, in dire straits.

The people it controls in the Gaza Strip are growing sick — some of them literally — of the conditions in the coastal enclave, where electricity is intermittent and raw sewage pollutes the surrounding sea because there’s no power for its water treatment facility.

Palestinian children fill jerrycans with drinking water from public taps in the southern Gaza Strip, June 11, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian children fill jerrycans with drinking water from public taps in the southern Gaza Strip, June 11, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Meanwhile, work is poised to begin in the coming weeks on an Israeli subterranean border barrier that is meant to cripple Hamas’s ability to send gunmen into the country through underground tunnels, one of the terror group’s main weapons.

In this Oct. 23, 2012 photo, then-Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, left, and Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, arrive for a corner-stone laying ceremony for Hamad, a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Mohammed Salem, Pool)
In this Oct. 23, 2012 photo, then-emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, left, and Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, arrive for a cornerstone-laying ceremony for Hamad, a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Mohammed Salem, Pool)

And one of Hamas’s main benefactors, Qatar, is in the midst of its own crisis, and thus unlikely to step in and help in the near future. Its neighbor Saudi Arabia and many former allies cut ties with the small, oil-rich nation last week for a number of reasons, including its support for terrorist groups, among them Hamas.

But while all seems to be falling apart for Hamas, the group is in top military shape, having completely rebuilt its arsenal and infrastructure in the three years since its 2014 war with Israel, according to Israeli estimates.

Its ranks are said to have swelled to 27,000 fighters, nearly a tenth of them commandos. And the group is also believed to have invested heavily in both naval and aerial capabilities since the last Gaza conflict.

Fighters from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror movement, attend a memorial service for a commander killed in an apparently accidental explosion inn the southern Gaza Strip on June 10, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
Fighters from the Izz-a-din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror movement, attend a memorial service for a commander killed in an apparently accidental explosion in the southern Gaza Strip on June 10, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Still, Amos Gilad, a long-time senior official in the Defense Ministry, said on Wednesday he was convinced that Israel has sufficiently deterred Hamas from seeking a renewed round of conflict.

“They understand that their next attack on Israel might end ‘Hamastan,’ the Hamas government in Gaza,” he said, speaking in a phone briefing organized by the Israel Project.

Gilad nevertheless advised Israel to work to prevent a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the Strip, because “a humanitarian crisis is chaos, and we need to avoid it.”

A power struggle

On Sunday, Israel’s security cabinet approved a request by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to halve the already paltry amount of electricity the coastal enclave receives. The hours of power supply in Gaza will likely be reduced from about six hours a day to between two and four hours.

Though the measure has been approved, it has not yet been implemented, as some technical aspects still have to be reviewed. When and if this decision will be implemented, it will place even more of a strain on the Strip’s hospitals and on average Palestinians, who are forced to power their homes and businesses with personal generators (when they can afford it; with an unemployment rate estimated to be approximately 40 percent, there aren’t many who can).

A Palestinian woman washes dishes by candlelight at her makeshift home in the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip on June 12, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian woman washes dishes by candlelight at her makeshift home in the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip on June 12, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Abbas is able to make such a request of Israel because, while Hamas levies taxes on residents of Gaza, it refuses to pay for the approximately 125 megawatt-hours of electricity that get wired in from Israel, forcing the PA — its bitter rival — to pick up the tab. Historically, the PA did just that, though the Strip hasn’t enjoyed round-the-clock electricity since Hamas took over some 10 years ago.

Palestinian terrorists from the Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, squat in a tunnel, used for ferrying rockets and mortars back and forth in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, as they take part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip on March 3, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian terrorists from the Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, squat in a tunnel, used for ferrying rockets and mortars back and forth in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, as they take part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip on March 3, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

With the PA paying the bills, Hamas, awash in cash and unencumbered by responsibilities, was able to sink its money into defensive and attack tunnels, as well as a new arsenal of rockets, mortars and drones to be launched at Israel.

But this year Abbas adopted a more aggressive strategy. He refused to pay the taxes for the diesel fuel that supplied the Strip’s own power station and to cover the NIS 40 million ($11.3 million) a month for electricity into Gaza, agreeing only to pay NIS 20-25 million ($7 million) a month to power the Strip.

In April, when Abbas first requested that Israel stop supplying the Gaza Strip with power in light of the debts it had racked up, this led to a minor tiff within the Israeli government. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz balked at the notion, saying he was “not in the habit of taking orders from the Palestinian Authority, directly or indirectly, on matters under my authority.” It took two months, but the Israeli government came around.

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, the military warned that the move might prompt Hamas to attack Israel, but it nevertheless reportedly supported the decision to cut power to Gaza on the grounds that it was preferable to a standoff with the Palestinian Authority over the issue.

Ignoring for a moment the diplomatic and political reasoning behind the cabinet’s decision, on a purely economic level, should a further reduction in electricity to Gaza indeed be the catalyst for another war, Israel will have proven itself to be agora-wise and shekel-foolish.

An Israeli tank drives through an undisclosed area of the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge on July 31, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An Israeli tank drives through an undisclosed area of the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge on July 31, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The millions that it would cost for Israel to supply Gaza with power would pale in comparison to the billions that a large-scale military operation would end up costing the country in materiel, reservists’ pay, insurance payouts for buildings and infrastructure damaged by Hamas, lost work days, a drop in tourism and — it should go without saying — human lives.

Though it is involved to a far lesser extent, Egypt is also part of the electricity calculus, as it provides Gaza with about 20 megawatt-hours through two power lines from Rafah. On Monday, apparently sensing Hamas’s desperation, Cairo offered to increase the flow, in exchange for the terror group meeting certain conditions, according to the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

Hamas would have to hand over 17 men wanted by Egypt on terrorism charges, stop smuggling weapons into the Sinai, provide additional protection at the Egyptian border, and give Cairo a heads-up on the movement of terrorists into Gaza through its underground tunnel network.

On the issue of electricity, the ball is very much in Hamas’s court. The group does have its own funds, which could be used to settle its debts and ensure a steady supply of both power from Israel and diesel fuel into the Strip to allow the local power plant to provide residents with much-needed electricity. To date, though, it has refused to pay up.

A last hurrah for the tunnels

 

However, the game of chicken is not fueled by a power shortage alone.

Beginning later this summer, the Defense Ministry will begin work on an underground barrier designed to counter the threat of Hamas terrorists burrowing into Israel through attack tunnels.

Cranes and other machinery are seen on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza Strip, on September 8, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Cranes and other machinery are seen on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza Strip, on September 8, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

The barrier will run along the 60-kilometer border with Gaza. It is expected to take several months to complete and cost NIS three billion ($850 million), while another billion shekels ($280 million) will be invested in other projects to shore up Israel’s defenses against the subterranean threat.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot also revealed to the Knesset earlier this year that the military has capabilities that allow it to target the tunnels from the air.

Palestinians run for cover as sand and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Palestinians run for cover as sand and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

While Hamas was once known for its rocket arsenal, with which it pummeled the town of Sderot and much of southern Israel for nearly a decade, it has increasingly turned to tunnels as its go-to means of threatening Israel.

In a speech last year, Hamas’s then-politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh vowed that the group would live by “the rifle and the tunnel.”

Hamas’s network of tunnels is said to crisscross the entire Gaza Strip, as well as penetrate Israeli territory, giving it a veritable underground fortress from which to conduct attacks against Israeli security forces and civilians.

Illustrative: a Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Illustrative: a Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

While the underground barrier along the border would not have an impact on the internal tunnel system, it is designed to neutralize the threat of tunnels that enter Israeli territory.

As work picks up on the barrier, Hamas might perceive a “use it or lose it” scenario regarding its border-crossing tunnels, and feel forced to send fighters through to carry out terror attacks while they still can.

Widening gulf with the Arab world

While Hamas has found itself pushed to the edge financially and militarily before, the difference this time is that its foreign support is in peril.

Last Monday, a group of Sunni Muslim countries, led by Saudi Arabia, announced it was cutting diplomatic ties and shutting down all borders with Qatar over the emirate’s support for terrorism and other actions that destabilize the region.

Qatar has long been a source of consternation for Israel.

“On the one hand, it’s a friend of the Americans. On the other, it’s a friend of the Iranians. Sometimes it’s with the Saudis; sometimes it’s not with the Saudis,” said Eldad Shavit, a former high-ranking official in both IDF Military Intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office.

In this Aug. 3, 2015 photo, Qatar Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani waits for the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of their meeting, at Diwan Palace in Doha, Qatar. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via AP)
In this Aug. 3, 2015 photo, Qatar Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani waits for the arrival of US secretary of state John Kerry ahead of their meeting, at Diwan Palace in Doha, Qatar. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via AP)

As the Middle East is being divided along the Shia-Sunni (perhaps more accurately, the Iranian-Saudi) fault line, Qatar remains something of a wild card.

And so at the beginning of last week, apparently emboldened by the supportive words of US President Donald Trump during his trip to Riyadh last month, Saudi Arabia got together a group of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, to lay down the law for Qatar and get it to toe the Sunni coalition line.

Customers are seen shopping at the al-Meera market in the Qatari capital Doha, June 10, 2017. (AFP/STRINGER)
Customers are seen shopping at the al-Meera market in the Qatari capital Doha, June 10, 2017. (AFP/STRINGER)

Riyadh has considerable leverage over Doha, more so than the other countries in the Sunni coalition. Surrounding Qatar on three sides, Saudi Arabia controls the land borders through which approximately 40 percent of its food supply enters.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir demanded that Qatar stop supporting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood if it wanted a resumption of ties with its former allies.

Qatar, it should be said, does not openly or directly fund the terrorist group, but assists it peripherally, acting as host to its leadership and financially supporting the people of Gaza so that Hamas can focus on its military strategy.

There have already been reports that Qatar is prepared to expel some Hamas officials from the country, but the extent to which the Qataris will ultimately cave is still open to debate.

“I don’t see [senior Hamas official Khaled] Mashaal getting kicked out of Qatar,” said Shavit, who is now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank at Tel Aviv University.

With so much on the line, Shavit said, he expected that Qatar would capitulate to the Sunni countries’ demands quickly.

But the diplomatic crisis is liable to have a twofold effect on Hamas:

Palestinian workers rebuilding a house as reconstruction begins in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, July 23, 2015. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian workers rebuilding a house as reconstruction begins in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, July 23, 2015. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

As this severance of ties goes on, Qatar — while a rich country — would likely be more inclined to keep its money at home, feeding its citizens and keeping businesses afloat, rather than sending it out to Gaza. That would make it harder for Hamas to keep the Strip’s citizens happy. And, if Doha does eventually cave to the pressure, it would be cutting its more apparent support for the terrorist group, which will hurt Hamas directly.

“All this pressure on Hamas, coming from Egypt or coming from Qatar… puts them on this track to make a decision,” Shavit said.

So what will that decision be? Will the game of chicken end in a horrific wreck, a fourth round of fighting in the beleaguered and battered coastal enclave? Israel, it seems, is prepared to take a gamble and stay the course, relying on Hamas to blink and swerve out of the way.

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