Both Israel, Hamas tout ‘accomplishments’ in Gaza — but is calm truly possible?

Scaled back border protests have each side claiming progress, but the key issues aren’t going away, and the threat of PA sanctions looms large

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 Palestinian protester stands by his national flag during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on October 19, 2018. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
A Palestinian protester stands by his national flag during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on October 19, 2018. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

It’s been a long time since both Hamas and Israel appeared satisfied with the outcome of the ongoing protests along the Gaza border, but both sides have been touting their “accomplishments” in Friday’s border events to their respective peoples.

In Israel, security officials stressed that the turnout at Friday’s protests was relatively low, and that the demonstrations saw the lowest level of violence in recent months.

Officials told Israeli media that in an effort to prevent violence, Hamas had taken measures to deter demonstrators on Friday, and had even stationed guards near the border to stop protesters from breaching the fence.

Of course, they said, this didn’t work everywhere, but defense officials noted that it was the quietest protest since the “March of Return” events began earlier this year.

This message apparently had two purposes: first, to calm spirits in the Israeli public, where there have been growing calls for a harsher military response to Gaza violence after two rockets were fired from the Strip towards central Israel and at Beersheba earlier this week; and second, and perhaps more importantly, to calm combative cabinet ministers led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — who made sure the press was told he had urged a large-scale military campaign in Gaza, as well as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party has turned the IDF into its punching bag on the way to the next election.

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, Hamas and other factions hailed participants in the protests for continuing the fight to end the Egyptian and Israeli blockade of the territory.

Israeli soldiers taking position during clashes with Palestinian protesters across the Gaza border on October 19, 2018 in Nahal Oz (Jack Guez/AFP)

Contrary to Israeli reports, media outlets in Gaza reported a relatively high turnout Friday, but Hamas did admit that it had issued instructions to reduce friction with the Israeli military near the border fence — this in accordance with understandings reached with Egyptian mediators working to broker a long-term peace agreement with Israel. (In recent months, Egyptian Intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov have emerged as the key figures working to prevent another war.)

In short, both sides are what might be called relatively satisfied. And in the Middle East, where you would be hard-pressed to find more bitter enemies than Israel and Hamas, that is something of a miracle in and of itself.

But the problem is that Friday’s events are far from the end of this fight.

Just Saturday morning, new attempts were made by Palestinian youths to breach the border in central Gaza. Friday’s “non-violent” protest was a stone’s throw away from potentially becoming another incident with major casualties on the Palestinian side — with all the ramifications that would entail.

And had the two rockets fired at Beersheba and central Israel Wednesday morning — the first of which destroyed a home — resulted in casualties, we would, of course, be in a completely different place right now.

The big questions remain. None of the reasons that led Hamas, an Islamist terror group that wants to destroy Israel, to launch the protests — the blockade, Palestinian Authority sanctions, rage against the Jewish state — have gone away.

First, on the immediate tactical level, will Israel allow resumption of the transfer of Qatari-bought fuel into Gaza as early as Sunday, doubling power for the Strip’s residents from four to eight hours a day? And does Israel intend to take more steps to ease the humanitarian situation according to the UN’s plans? Gazans have understood from Egyptian mediators that the relative quiet of Friday will ensure such steps are taken.

A damage to the house that was hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip, is seen in the city of Beersheba, southern Israel, Wednesday, October 17, 2018. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

And next week an even bigger hurdle will emerge: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is set to convene the PLO’s Central Committee to make a series of major decisions, including the potential complete halt of all PA funds to the Gaza Strip. Such a move would not only have significant implications for the Strip’s economy, but for Israel’s security situation as well.

But in the same spirit of cautious optimism that has prevailed over the last 24 hours, perhaps Egyptian pressure will succeed there as well, and Abbas will refrain from taking such drastic action.

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