In lieu of dialogue, Hamas is playing with fire

Both Israel and Gaza seem to want to keep the conflagration under control, but it’s a dangerous game that could lead to all-out war

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.

An explosion is seen in Gaza City after an airstrike by Israel on June 18, 2018. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)
An explosion is seen in Gaza City after an airstrike by Israel on June 18, 2018. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

The drums of war are again beating in Gaza. Blasts from the Israeli Air Force’s strikes echoed almost throughout the Strip early Monday, while again alarms blared on the Israeli side of the fence shortly after 4 a.m. Three rockets were launched, one of which landed inside Gaza.

It is like a bad movie that the viewers — Israelis and Palestinians alike — are forced to watch over and over, and whose dire ending, barring any unexpected development, everyone already knows.

The military says it struck nine targets associated with Hamas and other terror groups. Among them were a structure belonging to Hamas’s maritime forces that Israel has already blasted many times, a training facility for Hamas’s military wing, and a weapons manufacturing facility. This list seems to have already featured in previous rounds of combat.

The headline of this round is of course the fire kite terrorism. It has turned into a serious threat to southern Israel, and a main weapon in Hamas’s arsenal, with a variety of explosives and incendiary devices rigged to kites and balloons. Hamas, causing immense damage in Israel, along with helpless outrage in the face of such a primitive weapon, seems to have found its enemy’s weak spot: The kites look great in local and international news reports and have even become the subject of a sketch in “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s most popular comedy and satire show.

Palestinian protesters holds ballons and kites before loading them with flammable material to be flown towards Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip, June 14, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Israel has threatened Hamas in various ways regarding the kites, including firing warning shots. But at the end of the day, the Israeli messages haven’t made an impression. Every day, members of Hamas’s military wing make a focused effort to launch more and more kites and increase the damage to the residents of Israel’s south.

That is what led to the Israeli reaction overnight in the form of strikes in Gaza. Hamas, in turn, has presented its own response, meaning that the group is also trying to send a message — that it won’t let Israel create a “new equation” in which the IDF strikes Hamas targets following kite launches. The price for that is rockets on the south.

But still, the bottom line is that there were no casualties on either side in this round. Israel and Hamas have formulated an undeclared but clear policy — that they aren’t interested in an escalation of tensions or an all-out war — but are continuing to “exchange messages”: In the absence of a diplomatic process, the strikes and rocket launches have become the primary form of dialogue between the sides.

Israel may be striking Hamas targets, but it is also doing everything it can to preserve Hamas’s rule over Gaza. There are no strikes on manned targets, and no targeting of senior members of the terror organization.

Flames from rockets fired by Palestinians are seen over Gaza Strip heading toward Israel, in the early morning of May 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Hamas, meanwhile, is enabling a “trickle” of rocket fire after Israeli strikes, while permitting the launch of kites causing much damage in Israel.

Everyone understands that if this kind of “communication continues,” we could be in for a very dramatic summer, with a solution not yet on the horizon.

In recent days, various initiatives to ease the humanitarian crisis in the Strip have been published, primarily in Arab media. On Sunday, for instance, US pressure on Arab countries was reported — an ostensible demand that they transfer about a billion dollars for Gaza’s rehabilitation. The Qatari envoy to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, is also expected to return to the Strip to discuss various plans to improve its economy.

Still, it seems that without a more comprehensive strategic plan, nothing will change in the territory, at least not in the near future. Jerusalem isn’t mulling any dramatic steps to alter the status quo with Gaza or Hamas, which isn’t considering relinquishing its rule over the Strip to the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, has no intention of taking control of Gaza without Hamas truly giving up its military wing. Egypt, meanwhile, despite deciding to open the Rafah Crossing during the holy month of Ramadan, still isn’t completely opening the border as long as there is no change in Gaza.

Palestinians protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops on the Israel-Gaza border, June 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

As for Hamas’s activity in the field: The group prefers at this stage to try and inflame tensions in the south and the West Bank, without dragging Gaza into war. Just this week, the Shin Bet said it had again thwarted a Hamas plot to establish a terror cell that would carry out terror attacks in the West Bank and in Israel.

In addition, the organization is concentrating those efforts on kite terrorism, which on one hand makes it possible for Gazans to let off steam, and on the other is not causing human casualties or harming infrastructure.

The implication is that Hamas, for the time being, seems to be setting aside its own rocket launches and also the semi-grassroots demonstrations at the border fence. Those protests have proven to be an almost too “effective” weapon that could lead to war, considering the large number of Palestinian casualties.

That is what has led to the choice of kites as, for now, the main weapon. By using such a primitive, even childish, tool of destruction, Hamas is hoping to keep Gaza at the center of Israeli and international attention, eventually leading to dramatic economic steps that will contribute to the survival of its rule over the territory. But it’s playing with fire.

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