An escalation that achieved nothing, and a ceasefire that won’t hold for long
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Analysis

An escalation that achieved nothing, and a ceasefire that won’t hold for long

The understandings that ended this flareup are precisely the understandings that held before it started. The border protests won’t stop, and neither will the incendiary balloons

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.

A car bursts into flames after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Flash90)
A car bursts into flames after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Flash90)

At some point on Sunday evening, the Hamas leadership began to realize that it should seek a ceasefire with Israel.

It may be that Israel’s massive bombardments made the difference — the strikes on Hamas ammunition stores; the targeted assassination of Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, the man responsible for channeling funds from Iran (according to the IDF and the Shin Bet); the destruction of several multi-story buildings in the heart of Gaza. All of this gradually prompted the organization’s heads to internalize the repercussions of continuing the fighting, and all this at a time when Hamas’s Gaza chief, Yihya Sinwar, was in Cairo, disconnected from the Strip.

The message that was being conveyed from the various mediators — the UN, Egypt, even Qatar — was that Israel was not rushing to seek a ceasefire.

It may be that Hamas had overreached. The assumption in its leadership was that Israel would rush to put an end to this round of fighting, or perhaps might even refrain from a forceful response to the initial rocket fire, because of the sensitivities relating to the upcoming Memorial Day, Independence Day and Eurovision events.

From the Israeli side, the message to the mediators, and the message that was sent to the media in all the various security briefings, was quite the opposite: Even if the confrontation continued into Memorial Day and Independence Day, even into Eurovision, Israel had no intention of stopping.

The remains of what the IDF says was the Hamas terror group’s cyber unit in the Gaza Strip, which was destroyed in an Israeli Air Force strike on May 4, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

It may be, however, that what most influenced Hamas to push for a ceasefire was the realization that otherwise Gaza would spend the first days of Ramadan under attack.

Several leading figures in the organization briefed reporters in Gaza to the effect that Hamas had no intention of stopping the fighting until Israel agreed to dramatically change the Gaza reality — such as by opening a safe sea route from Cyprus to the Strip. But these declarations turned out to be empty. After firing almost 700 rockets and mortar shells, killing four Israeli civilians, and sustaining some 30 Gaza fatalities, many of them terrorists, ultimately Hamas realized that there was a limit to what it could achieve, militarily or economically, at this stage. And that the best that could be done was to try to get back to where things stood before the opening of this round of violence.

These, then, are the understandings that were reached by the two sides via various mediators, mainly the Egyptians, on Sunday evening, according to Palestinian sources: Hamas and Israel mutually halt their fire; and the same concessions that were agreed within the framework of the previous understandings, several weeks before Israel’s election, were restored — namely the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone, an increase in the entry of supplies into Gaza, and the continuation of the transfer of Qatari money into the Strip via the UN. That’s all. The border protest will continue. So, too, apparently the incendiary balloons. Everything as it was.

The “achievement” that Hamas reached this time was a readiness by Israel to resume talks on various humanitarian projects that are supposed to be carried out in Gaza, including improvements to the electricity and water infrastructure.

And thus an agreement was reached to stop the fighting for now, while paving the way to the next escalation. This may happen in the next few weeks. Maybe after the end of Ramadan.

For even after the ceasefire, all the elements that destabilize the situation between Israel and Hamas continue to exist: 1. The Palestinian Authority refuses to take responsibility for the Strip and does quite a lot in order to create economic distress there. 2. Islamic Jihad continues to try to drag the area into war by competing with Hamas and through the lack of authoritative leadership by its new chief, Ziad Nakhaleh. 3. Israel, on the one hand, refuses to talk to Hamas, but talks to it indirectly on the other hand. And furthermore does not rush to provide significant strategic solutions for the Strip — solutions that might prevent the next escalation, or at least put it off further.

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