Hamas smells Israel’s fear of escalation, and so the rockets keep coming

Even if Islamist group ignores a reported 48-hour ultimatum, the Israeli leadership will be deeply reluctant to launch a major offensive against Gaza

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.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, attend the funeral of Mohammed Obeid in the town of Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on June 30, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, attend the funeral of Mohammed Obeid in the town of Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on June 30, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Dozens of rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the last two days. More were fired in the days before. At yet Israel is still imploring, “Hold me back!”

Over and over, threats are issued by senior Israeli officials — some anonymously, some by name — but there is nothing underpinning them.

Hamas keeps on firing, well aware of the situation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz do not want a wide-ranging military confrontation with Gaza. Hamas smells this fear, and so the rockets continue to fall — albeit only in the Negev for now — in order to indicate that it is not capitulating to Israeli pressure or to its threats.

On Thursday night, Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades held a press conference at which it presented its own “hold me back” approach. The armed wing’s spokesman, Abu Obaida warned that “one stupid move” from the enemy would lead Hamas to hit “a bank of targets the enemy does not expect.”

He added: “We have plans that would enable us to manage a confrontation against the Zionists, and we can surprise the enemy and its allies. The enemy should understand that its aggression in the West Bank, its abuse of prisoners, and its repression and blockade of Gaza — all are fuel to ignite protests so long as these acts of aggression continue.”

Defense Ministry Moshe Ya'alon (center) and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (right) visit the IDF's Gaza Division on June 10, 2014. (photo credit: Defense Ministry/FLASH90)
Defense Ministry Moshe Ya’alon (center) and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (right) visit the IDF’s Gaza Division on June 10, 2014. (photo credit: Defense Ministry/FLASH90)

On Thursday afternoon, a senior military source conveyed the message to Hamas, in the course of a discussion with journalists, that Israel does not want escalation. In a neighborhood such as ours, this was likely interpreted as weakness.

Hamas has had no interest in a major escalation, and had not been directly attacking Israel until the last few days. But ever since one of its members, Mohammed Obeid, was killed in an Israeli border attack at the end of last month — an apparent error: the IDF thought it was firing at a rocket-launch cell, but actually struck Hamas members deployed to prevent rocket fire — it has changed its approach.

Encouraged by Israel’s hesitant stance, Hamas has continued to fire intermittently at Israeli cities in order to be seen as “the defender of the Palestinian people.”

There are sound reasons for Israel’s desire to avoid a confrontation with Hamas. First, a major escalation would mean missiles fired at central Israel, and the prime minister wants to avoid that at almost any cost. Second, the IDF has no desire to get entangled in a Gaza ground offensive, and that may prove necessary after a prolonged pounding from the air. And finally, the Defense Ministry recognizes that there is no better alternative to Hamas’s control of Gaza; ironically, the Islamist group is a leadership that Israel has been able to do business with. Hamas has proved quite pragmatic, and has acted to prevent rocket fire on Israel on more than one occasion.

The problem is that this equation has shifted in recent days. It may be that Hamas has come to feel that it has nothing to lose — given the crisis over payments still owed to its people in Gaza, and the overall decline in the Gazan economy. And the fact that Hamas clearly feels Israel is scared of getting re-entangled in Gaza which has produced the belief that it can fire on Israel and get away with it.

Late Thursday, Palestinian sources were claiming that Israel has conveyed an ultimatum, via Egyptian intelligence: If the rockets don’t stop within 48 hours, Israel will hit Gaza hard.

But it is doubtful that, even if that ultimatum passes unheeded, the Israeli leadership will want to launch a wide-ranging assault on Gaza, and risk missiles on Tel Aviv.

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