Analysis

In Gaza, an unwanted escalation could be a slippery slope

Despite cross-border fire, Hamas isn’t ready for a new fight and Israel would rather focus on elections, but things can easily snowball

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 masked Hamas member carries a model of a rocket during a rally in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A masked Hamas member carries a model of a rocket during a rally in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Wednesday’s violent incident at the Gaza Strip border, which left one IDF soldier seriously wounded by Palestinian sniper fire and a senior Hamas activist killed in the IDF’s retaliatory fire, is another step in the slow and seemingly never-ending deterioration between Israel and Hamas.

We are largely at the start of an escalation which no one wants, but it is there, and there is no way to predict how it will end.

On the surface, neither party has any desire to engage in another round of fighting. Israel, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not interested in an election-season war that could bring an end to his time in power.

Hamas, meanwhile, beaten and battered after Operation Protective Edge, understands that its current capabilities do not allow it to partake in another military adventure like it did this summer.

But as in previous rounds of violence, developments on the ground may subvert what leaders would like to see. A small localized incident could lead to a tougher response by one of the parties, leading to a snowball effect in which the blows only get worse and worse.

This is what happened in the south before the summer’s Operation Protective Edge, even though back then there was a clearer reason behind the military confrontation with Hamas.

Unlike the rocket fire last Friday, when it was clear that a small, rogue group was behind the launch, it is unclear as of now whether Hamas was responsible for Wednesday’s sniper shooting. If it was Hamas, it is taking its time in claiming responsibility.

Still, despite talk of not wanting an escalation, Hamas showed little interest in trying to calm things quickly. On the contrary, Hamas’s immediate reaction was that Israel was attempting to cross the border into Gaza, and the organization’s websites hailed the new “martyr” among its ranks.

On the other hand, Hamas made no unusual or significant threats following the shooting. Hamas instead convened a meeting with all its factions to deliberate over the nature of the response to Israel’s strikes.

It is unclear at this stage how long Hamas will veer clear of slipping toward a wider conflict.

The situation in Gaza continues to be difficult, worse than before the war, and internal criticism against Hamas in Gaza has only increased.

According to Palestinian media, only 2 percent of the aid pledged for the reconstruction of the Strip has reached its destination. This means that, although Israel now allows construction materials for rebuilding to enter Gaza, residents have no real ability to purchase them.

The faltering economy in the Strip has also led to a heated internal debate about the organization’s plans for the future.

While Hamas’s military wing has been preparing for the next round of violence, in the more pragmatic sections of the movement, voices can be heard criticizing the group.

On Tuesday, a senior Hamas officials in Gaza, Ghazi Hamad, who is known as one of the moderate leaders of the organization, published an article in which he accuses the group of being “trapped in its faith of resistance.”

Hamad called for Palestinian unity, the absence of which prevents a common strategic vision and leads to a national disaster.

At the same time, other Hamas leaders have not hidden the rekindling of ties with Iran. This could be a symptom of the severe economic distress in the Strip, which may grow more isolated amid Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement and Doha apparently pulling support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

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