In Gaza, a slow-burning escalation courtesy of a weakened Hamas

With pressure mounting from Egypt and Israel, the Islamist terror group may be allowing rocket fire for lack of a better option

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.

Hamas fighters sitting during an anti-Israel parade in Gaza in November, 2013. (photo credit:  Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Hamas fighters sitting during an anti-Israel parade in Gaza in November, 2013. (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

The surge of rocket fire from Gaza in the past few days is likely the product of two trends: Hamas’s diminishing motivation to prevent the launching of rockets, and the mounting desire of small organizations to escalate violence. It’s a particularly dangerous game, as it could easily lead to a violent and bloody confrontation with Israel.

It’s also possible, perversely, that were it not for the Rabbi Pinto affair, which has gripped the domestic press, we would already be deep into this escalation. Without the bribery scandal rocking Israel’s police, concerned citizens might be knocking down doors, seeking answers to the security decline in the south from politicians and military brass.

Despite what pundits may say, the current escalation in the Gaza Strip did not start in the past 72 hours. Its roots can be traced back six months, when the Egyptian army shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Gaza, in a move that seemingly served Israeli interests. The smuggling industry, which was one of the leading sources of income in the Strip, became nearly completely defunct.

Once the spigot on gasoline, building materials, weapons, and various other commodities to the Strip was shut, the economic reality in Gaza deteriorated and with it came a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the local population with Hamas governance.

The Islamist organization, which has made an effort to prevent an escalation of violence against Israel since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, is caught between a rock and a hard place: Egypt is bearing down on it from the west and south; Israel is applying pressure from the north and east.

At the same time, tens of thousands of Palestinians have joined the ranks of the unemployed due to stagnation in the construction industry, in light of the severe shortage of building materials. This, on top of the various fuel shortages and frequent power cuts, has created a climate almost guaranteed to produce a flare-up in violence.

Put it another way: Hamas has nothing to lose right now. The Egyptians have marked the organization as the enemy (an Egyptian official last week said in an interview with Reuters that Hamas is the next target Cairo will seek to overthrow) and relations with Cairo have reached an unprecedented low.

Hamas may not want an escalation in violence, but the status quo is problematic, even dangerous, for the Islamists, especially with Gazans less willing to give them leeway.

This may explain the increased number of rockets launched at Israel. Hamas is looking for a way out. It is not behind the latest attacks, but in contrast to the past few years, it seems to be turning a blind eye and allowing Islamic Jihad as well as other organizations to fire at will.

It’s also possible that Hamas’s control over Gaza is not as strong as it once was. The widespread sense among Gaza analysts is that, were it deliberately overseeing an escalation, Hamas would do so in a controlled manner — via a deliberate and gradual escalation. That’s not what’s been happening, and last week’s funeral of former prime minister Ariel Sharon underlines the point.

Hamas was well aware that various organizations might seek to target the funeral at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch, being attended by the Israeli leadership and international dignitaries led by US Vice President Joe Biden. Warned by Israel not to dare target the event, and told it would face a fierce Israeli response if it ignored the warning, Hamas deployed a significant number of operatives at potential rocket launch sites to ensure there was no fire. It was successful until, just minutes after the funeral ended, two rockets were indeed loosed off toward the Western Negev — prompting Israeli Air Force retaliatory strikes, and another small Gaza-Israel escalation.

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