The options facing Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on the day after the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers range from bad to worse. As was the case on the morning after the kidnapping itself, this event has the potential to draw all sides into a strategic escalation that will change the status quo.
In the course of the late night cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Monday, all kinds of ideas for the appropriate Israeli response were aired. The demolition of houses, the deportation of prisoners, an assault on Gaza, and more besides. But the security establishment knows demolishing homes or exiling prisoners will not reduce the motivation of the terrorists, certainly not those from Islamist organizations.
Hamas has learned how to compensate the families of terrorists whose homes are demolished; they’ve been given more than enough money to rebuild those homes. As for the deportation of prisoners, that has become a double-edged sword: Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails and exiled have, from their new homes and offices in Gaza, Arab states and Turkey, overseen intensive efforts to establish terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. There, in the “diaspora,” spared the relentless threat of arrest or elimination, these deported ex-convicts are able to cause no less damage, and often more, than those of their colleagues still in their West Bank homes under the close supervision of the Shin Bet and the Palestinian security forces.
If Israel wants to take action against the Hamas leadership, the central address was and remains the Gaza Strip, even if there’s no proof at this stage of a connection between the terror cell that kidnapped and killed Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, and the heads of Hamas in the Strip. However, despite the pressure of public opinion in Israel for a response to the killings, Jerusalem is concerned about targeting the Hamas leadership in Gaza because of the fear of escalation. The price of a dramatic upsurge in action against Hamas, or of efforts to bring down the Hamas leadership, will be dozens of missiles on Israel’s central Dan region and even further north. At this stage, it does not look as though Israel is interested in waging all-out war with Gaza.
Israel is now expecting PA President Mahmoud Abbas to announce the cessation of his reconciliation process with Hamas. The Palestinian leadership assembled on Tuesday morning in Ramallah, but according to a senior Palestinian source, Abbas is not yet ready to declare the Fatah-Hamas unity process over. “We’re also not about to announce the dissolution of the national reconciliation government,” this source told The Times of Israel. He said the PA would first have to look closely at what has unfolded and then decide how to act with respect to Hamas.
It is obvious to the PA that Hamas operatives were responsible for the kidnapping and killings, but there is no proof that the Hamas leadership in Gaza or overseas planned the operation together with the Hebron cell that carried it out. At the same time, it is clear to the Palestinian leadership that the PA may have no choice but to take more drastic action against Hamas in the West Bank, if only to avert more intensive Israeli intervention. Reconciliation, from the PA’s point of view, remains an idea that is convenient to market and discuss in Palestinian media, but no more than that. The reality in Gaza will not change, and in the West Bank the PA’s security forces will continue to pursue their Islamist rivals.
And what of Hamas? Right now the organization is in a complicated position. It does not want an escalation of hostilities against Israel from Gaza, but the various smaller organizations there have dragged it and Israel into a security deterioration of sorts. It recognizes that Israel’s targeting of 34 sites in Gaza overnight did not represent a “declaration of war” by Israel, and most of the sites attacked were not populated. Gazans are tired of wars and more bitter than ever over the economic situation, especially during this Ramadan period. And, as ever, a full-scale confrontation with Israel could bring about the fall of Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Nonetheless, absolute inaction by Hamas in Gaza would be interpreted as weakness. It seems likely, therefore, that Israeli attacks on Gaza will be met with as minimal a response as Hamas can allow itself. For now, at least.