Israel and Hamas are one misdirected shell away from war
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Analysis

Israel and Hamas are one misdirected shell away from war

The IDF and Hamas are wrestling in a small area near the border fence, insisting they don't want all-out conflict but coming dangerously close to it

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Reports on Thursday evening that Janaa al Amor, a 49-year-old Palestinian woman, had been killed by Israeli artillery fire east of Khan Younis in the northern Gaza Strip illustrates how easily violence on the border between Israel and Gaza can escalate.

For now, it must be said, both sides seem interested in containing the violence. Even though IDF forces have been operating just beyond the Gaza fence, hunting on both sides of the border for Hamas’s attack tunnels, Hamas has been firing at the troops rather than launching rockets toward populated areas.

Nor has Hamas used its remaining tunnels — two of which have been found in the last month — or other means to attack Israeli targets.

For now, the two sides wrestle within this small perimeter, an area of 150-200 meters (165-656 feet) from the border fence where Israeli forces are operating under fire from Hamas members. On Thursday afternoon, Palestinian sources claimed that IDF troops were active in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip and in Rafah at its south, inside Palestinian territory.

Israeli tanks stationed near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 as Israeli forces search for Hamas attack tunnels leading into southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
Israeli tanks stationed near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 as Israeli forces search for Hamas attack tunnels leading into southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

But this scuffle does not look like it’s going to end anytime soon and it is not clear how long it will be limited to the small perimeter area, before potentially spilling into Israel on one side and deep into the Gaza Strip on the other.

A picture taken on May 6, 2016 from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip shows the exit of a newly unearthed Hamas attack tunnel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
A picture taken on May 6, 2016 from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip shows the exit of a newly unearthed Hamas attack tunnel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

On Friday, Palestinian and Egyptian sources told The Times of Israel that IDF troops had withdrawn from the Strip.

Still, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Yoav (Poly) Mordechai, stressed that the IDF would continue its tunnel-detection operations. “The army intends to maintain its activities against Hamas as it continues to breach Israeli sovereignty and build tunnels,” he said.

Hamas members at a funeral in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2016. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
Hamas members at a funeral in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2016. (AFP/Said Khatib)

It is true that both Israel and Hamas have no interest in a mutual grand show of force, and both sides are attempting to prevent a descent to war. The many statements by senior Hamas officials regarding efforts to reach a ceasefire with Egyptian and Qatari mediation show this well. But the tide may turn as incidents on the ground develop.

Hamas has already announced it will not hold its fire so long as Israeli forces are active inside the Gaza Strip. So far, mortar fire has not caused any injuries, but if, unfortunately, a group of IDF soldiers is hit, the Israeli response is likely to be harsh. The same formula is relevant to the Palestinian side. And the Israeli activity against the terror tunnels, including beyond the border fence, is not expected to end soon.

An Israeli soldier atop his tank on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
An Israeli soldier atop his tank on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Israeli bombardments in Gazan territory are limited but if future Israeli sorties cause more casualties, Hamas may not limit its fire to the borderline perimeter. The temptation to launch projectiles deep into Israel will be immense.

What about an attack by Hamas through one of the not-yet undiscovered tunnels?

Such an attack would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Israel, and it is doubtful that this course of action has a lot of support among the political leaders of Hamas.

Muhammad Deif
Muhammad Deif

But the military wing, headed by Muhammed Deif and other extremists like Yahya Sinwar, is already singing different tunes regarding a terror attack that would cause a large number of Israeli casualties. These terrorist leaders argue that Hamas erred by not going on the offensive on the eve of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s war with Hamas, and they don’t want it to make the same “mistake” again.

According to the radical voices in Hamas, the group should begin with an opening strike that can be used to paint a picture of victory when the violence subsides. Only thus, they claim, will Hamas be able to say that it won.

These operatives say that returning to the Gazan routine, where the borders with Egypt and Israel are closed, means a protracted death sentence for Hamas as Gaza’s rulers. This is why they support carrying out a massive, lethal terror attack against an Israeli target — before the tunnels are exposed and the opportunity lost.

But even if they do not win that argument, it would only take one “strategic shell” that mistakenly hits a group of soldiers, or Israeli civilians, or Palestinian civilians, to send us speeding down the road to all-out war.

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