Eyeing elections, Palestinians vote to tamp down on Gaza flare-up
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Eyeing elections, Palestinians vote to tamp down on Gaza flare-up

Hamas and Fatah don’t want war now, and while Israel’s response may have looked tougher than normal, it continued the proud tradition of using bombs to send a message

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.

Palestinian members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror movement, display Qassam home-made rockets during an anti-Israel military parade on August 21, 2016 in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror movement, display Qassam home-made rockets during an anti-Israel military parade on August 21, 2016 in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Sunday’s rocket fire over Sderot brought an unusual Israeli response. Palestinian sources in Gaza reported that Israeli air and ground forces hit at least 20 targets of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even former Fatah members.

“What happened to you [Israelis]? Have you gone mad? [Israeli Defense Minister] Liberman is trying to change the rules of the game!” one Palestinian source exclaimed.

What rules? Up to now, said the source, the accepted norm was that one missile was met with one reprisal strike. That calculus has now changed.

Echoing the same sentiment, Hamas itself announced on Twitter and on other sites associated with it that Israel was trying to change the ground rules.

But before Liberman’s admirers heap praise on the “new” Israeli response, they might want to look at how new it actually was.

Palestinian children stand next to a crater in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on August 22, 2016, after an Israeli airstrike targets Hamas positions in response to rocket fire on Sderot. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinian children stand next to a crater in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on August 22, 2016, after an Israeli airstrike targets Hamas positions in response to rocket fire on Sderot. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)

As in the past, the strikes were carried out mainly against Hamas targets near the border, or against other organizations, during hours when nobody was around.

Israel knew there would be hardly any Palestinian casualties (Hamas reported that two people were lightly hurt) and was seeking to send a message more than achieve any operational goal.

A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a makeshift dwelling on August 22, 2016 in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, following an Israeli airstrike the day before that targeted Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave hits the Israeli city of Sderot. AFP / Mahmud Hams
A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a makeshift dwelling on August 22, 2016, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, following an Israeli airstrike the day before that targeted Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave hits the Israeli city of Sderot. (AFP / Mahmud Hams)

Despite the supposedly “severe” Israeli response, Gaza’s leaders understand that these were “real estate attacks,” and that it is better to show restraint than to be dragged into a wider conflict against Israel.

During the night, Hamas did not fire a single rocket at Israel, preferring to broadcast threat upon threat on various social networks.

The organization that controls Gaza is not currently interested in an escalation of violence with Israel for several reasons.

Firstly, it is totally occupied with local Palestinian elections, which includes Gaza, where it is leading its campaign with the slogan “Gaza is more beautiful.”

It is a bit difficult to believe — and can sound like a joke, in light of Hamas’s constant complaint that the enclave is under siege and its economic situation dire — but Hamas has chosen to emphasize over the past two weeks that Gaza looks more beautiful under its government.

It is publishing a host of pictures showing the Strip at sunset, the beach, the promenade and new roads and neighborhoods, in a bid to give residents of Gaza and especially the West Bank the feeling that life is better under Hamas.

A military confrontation with Israel at this point would likely torpedo its plans to win the elections in Gaza and the West Bank.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, left, and Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, arrive for a cornerstone laying ceremony for Hamad, a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, October 23 (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Salem)
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, left, and Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, arrive for a cornerstone-laying ceremony for Hamad, a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, October 23, 2012. AP/Mohammed Salem.

Of course, at the same time that Israel’s government is supposedly trying to create a new security reality, Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have agreed to allow into Gaza Qatari cash to pay the salaries of Ismail Haniyeh — Hamas’s former prime minister — and another roughly 20,000 Hamas bureaucrats. This is something that other Israeli defense ministers staunchly opposed.

The old-new equation is not expected to lead to any real change in the Israel-Gaza relationship. And maybe it is not possible to change the current situation, other than by paying a steeper, bloodier price, which Israel does not want.

Hamas, which is accused by Israel and Egypt of maintaining secret cooperation with Islamic State figures in Sinai, will probably arrest a few members of Salafi groups and let them go soon after, as it has done after other rocket attacks.

In the meantime, one can take consolation in the idea that, barring any shocking surprises, salaries for Hamas personnel and “real estate attacks” in Gaza will convince the organization’s armed wing to continue to keep its rockets in storage.

The elections are also keeping the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas quiet. The ruling Fatah organization is also preparing for the local elections and is investing much in avoiding internal splits that could harm it at the polls.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lays a wreath on the grave of late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, in Ramallah on Wednesday, July 6, 2015 (FLASH90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lays a wreath on the grave of late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, in Ramallah on Wednesday, July 6, 2015 (FLASH90)

On Thursday, the candidate lists will close and it will become clear whether Fatah has succeeded in its internal unity bid or whether it will return to the mistakes of previous years, in which Fatah figures competed against one another, allowing Hamas to win.

Abbas is convinced he can hold the West Bank and win in Gaza as well.

His people sound more cautious. They are urging him not to give in to pressure from European states and Egypt to meet with Netanyahu. To date, he has refused to meet the Israeli leader without the promise of any real achievement.

Even though he has changed his answer from “no meeting” to “yes, but…,” it is doubtful whether this will lead to a real breakthrough or a summit between the two leaders.

One senior Palestinian figure told The Times of Israel that the Palestinians are demanding Netanyahu agree to freeze settlement building, free the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners (whose release was canceled by Israel in April 2014 partly in response to a Palestinian bid for membership of various international organizations), and announce that he will honor all previous signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

“Without this agreement, any meeting is doomed to failure,” the figure said.

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