Are we on the brink of another war with Hamas?
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Analysis

Are we on the brink of another war with Hamas?

Renewed violence at the Temple Mount and growing unrest in Gaza may trigger major conflict — even though, just like last year, neither side really wants 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.

Palestinians take part in a protest against a power crisis in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 14, 2015. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Palestinians take part in a protest against a power crisis in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 14, 2015. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Friday night’s rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip do not seem to be part of the trickle of projectiles “landing in open areas” to which Israelis have become accustomed at a rate of once every month or two.

While it is true that — like in previous attacks this year — Gazan supporters of the Islamic State rushed to claim responsibility, the manner in which videos documenting the attacks were published and especially the chosen targets testify that something has changed. The launch on Friday was meant to kill.

Firing rockets at two Israeli cities, and at least one was not a crude short-range projectile, is no mean feat. While it may have been done without Hamas’s awareness, the launchers knew full well that such an act would likely get them in trouble with the authorities in Gaza.

We can thus come to a different conclusion: The volleys were launched either with Hamas’s tacit approval or with the terror group looking the other way, a combination of letting out steam and sending a message to Israel and Egypt that the situation in Gaza is turning quickly intolerable.

There is no solid intelligence at the moment indicating the above. But this is an assessment heard inside the Gaza Strip.

Rising social tensions

This week saw power outages in Gaza lasting more than 20 hours a day — due to a combination of faulty lines decreasing the supply of electricity from Egypt and the closure of border crossings with Israel due to the Jewish New Year and Sabbath, resulting in fewer fuel deliveries. As a result, unprecedented demonstrations took place against Hamas.

Palestinians take part in a protest against a power crisis in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 14, 2015. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinians take part in a protest against a power crisis in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

During the past week, hundreds of Gazans flooded the streets of the central and southern parts of the Strip for four consecutive days to protest the situation. Activists from Hamas’s military wing tried to utilize the frustration and burned posters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the protests.

Adding to the tension, Egypt on Friday flooded tunnels near Rafah, damaging vast parts of an infrastructure Hamas has built and maintained at great cost.

Palestinians inspect the damage after Egyptian forces flooded smuggling tunnels dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 18, 2015. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinians inspect the damage after Egyptian forces flooded smuggling tunnels dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 18, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The poverty, distress, unemployment, power outages, poor infrastructure (despite Israel’s past and present efforts to improve them) – are all coming together to make life in the Strip unbearable for the residents there.

More and more voices in the top echelon of Hamas’s military wing, and especially the Gaza street, now say that the only way to make things better is another round of violence with Israel – in other words – another war. These voices are for the moment a minority, but they multiply with each passing day, within the organization and in popular opinion.

More war?

On the face of it, neither Israel nor Hamas wants an escalation. Both sides want a lasting ceasefire. The terror group continues to convey the message that it wishes to resolve the salary crisis of its officers and in return will agree to allow PA personnel to man the checkpoints. (This attitude is not new; however, the problem with the Hamas “willingness” is its insistence that Hamas security personnel stand at checkpoints alongside those from the PA.)

Israel is doing its fair share in order to calm tensions in the Gaza Strip. But we witnessed a very similar scenario only 14 months ago, on the eve of Operation Protective Edge. Then, too, neither side had a clear interest to start a war, but Hamas’s political and financial distress in Gaza pushed the organization to escalate things.

This week, IDF soldiers and Hamas troops exchanged fire on the Gaza Strip border. A Hamas fighter was wounded. If the incident had ended differently, with multiple injuries on either side, it is hard to say where we would be today.

Unrest on the Temple Mount

The news from East Jerusalem last week was also far from optimistic. With more rock throwing, Molotov cocktails and other scenes of violence in and around Jerusalem, tensions in the capital were the worst they have been since the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir more than a year ago.

Israeli government spokespeople bluntly ignore Israel’s part in creating the current reality in East Jerusalem and an event that, at least in part, led to the latest wave of unrest — namely Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel’s decision on Sunday, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, to visit the Temple Mount while leading a group of right-wing activists.

The pictures of altercations on the Temple Mount were shown in every possible Arab news channel, where one can assume they inflamed public opinion in Gaza and the West Bank, and beyond.

On Friday, protests took place in several locations in the West Bank. For now, these were small protests, far more minor than those seen in the days of the first intifada or even the second one. One of the main reasons these protests do not become massive displays of frustration that can quickly devolve to chaos is the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian security establishment violently dispersed two such events in Bethlehem and Jenin, both held under the banner of “identifying with al-Aqsa.”

The PA used brute force against its own people, including firing live bullets at protesting gunmen. This determination should have elicited a positive response on Israel’s side. But the Israeli reaction on Friday was to block the entry of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, head of general intelligence Majd Faraj and head of preventive security Ziad Habrih to Jerusalem.

A simple act of Israel exerting its sovereignty, but where does this put Abbas? In the highly inconvenient position of a leader whose people are being arrested at an Israeli checkpoint when they try to reach the Temple Mount.

All eyes on Abbas

Attention now turns to Abbas, who has pledged to drop a political bombshell during his speech at the UN at the end of the month.

Over the past few days Abbas suffered a severe political blow after he failed to convene the Palestinian National Council and move forward with an election for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee — elections he badly wanted. The many organizations which are a part of the PLO strongly opposed the “emergency” conference announced by Abbas and even his announcement that he was resigning from the Executive Committee left representatives of the organizations unfazed.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2014, in New York. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2014, in New York. (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

Furthermore, Abbas’s plan to determine who will stand for election to the Executive Committee failed, after the party’s central committee prevented him from doing so. Abbas wanted to appoint senior negotiator Saeb Erekat, and almost all other members of the central committee opposed this. Their demand was that the committee select candidates in a secret vote.

The conference of the Palestinian National Conference was postponed by three months. In the meantime, Abbas’s distress — regarding Israel and his domestic situation — only grows. Israel’s problem is that because Abbas is facing internal problems, he may be looking for succor from outside: a bombshell with a large enough “payload” at the UN to significantly boost his standing among the Palestinians.

If, that is, the spiraling tensions haven’t rendered his planned “bombshell” irrelevant by the time the UN convenes.

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