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Analysis

Israel does not want to deal with a Gaza battle right now, and Hamas knows it

Terrorists in the Strip have fired some 45 rockets at Israel in the past 3 days, while the IDF has barely responded in an apparent bid to make recent tensions dissipate quickly

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Members of the Mujahideen Brigades terror group take part in a military drill on the beach in Gaza City, on April 24, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Members of the Mujahideen Brigades terror group take part in a military drill on the beach in Gaza City, on April 24, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Israel’s leadership had wanted to focus on other things: the formation of a government, the ongoing fight against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, the Biden administration’s plans to reenter the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Instead, for the past three days, all eyes have been on a Jerusalem racked by internecine violence and the Gaza Strip, from which terror groups have fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel.

In light of the potential for additional fighting, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi canceled a major trip to the United States planned for this week, in which he was due to meet with top American officials regarding Iran and share with them Israeli intelligence on the Iranian regime’s nuclear program and its support for terror groups throughout the Middle East.

His decision to cancel the trip, which would have been his first to Washington in more than two years in his position, sent a clear message that the IDF was taking seriously the possibility of ongoing, escalating violence in the Gaza Strip, as well as potentially the West Bank. It also represents a significant victory for terror groups in the Strip, demonstrating their ability to derail the Israeli agenda.

On Monday afternoon, Israel’s security cabinet was convening to discuss the current security situation and consider how to proceed.

Until now, in order to move past this round of conflict as quickly as possible, the IDF has effectively opted to tolerate the rocket launches — though this is highly unpopular with the general Israeli public, particularly Israelis living in the towns closest to the Gaza border who have been under attack for three nights in a row.

Israeli boys examine the site where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, April 24, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

After the IDF retaliated to the initial rocket attacks on Friday night with strikes on the Hamas terror group’s observation posts, rocket launchpads and underground infrastructure, the government ordered it to refrain from responding to those fired at Israel on Saturday night and on Sunday night to early Monday morning.

Though two other terror groups — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a branch of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — publicly took responsibility for the attacks, Israel holds Hamas to be ultimately responsible for all violence from the Strip, as it is both the de facto ruler of the enclave and in almost total control of rocket fire from the Strip, indicating it must have given at least tacit approval for the launches.

Palestinian fishermen prepare their nets for fishing in the Mediterranean Sea off Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 2, 2020 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In a largely perfunctory move, the military on Monday morning ordered the total closure of the Gaza coast to Palestinian fishermen, blocking a key source of income for thousands of people in the beleaguered enclave. Israel has routinely relied on this tactic as a means of responding to attacks from the Strip, despite the fact that this form of collective punishment has been found to be overwhelmingly ineffective at spurring Hamas to halt rocket fire.

These highly irregular steps — Israel’s general policy is to always respond to rocket attacks with airstrikes on Hamas facilities — highlight the government’s immense desire to quell the current tensions with Palestinians.

What starts in Jerusalem

The impetus for this latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip has ostensibly been the recent unrest in Jerusalem between violent gangs of Jewish and Arab Israelis. This began with a number of attacks by Arab youths on visibly religious Jews in the capital, which were filmed and shared on the TikTok social media, prompting the racist, anti-miscegenation Lehava to hold marches in the city that included attacks on Arab Jerusalemites.

Arab residents of the capital have in turn held violent protests near the Old City, resulting in clashes with the Israel Police. Adding fuel to the fire, the police then shuttered the stairs around Damascus Gate, a popular hangout spot among Arab Jerusalemites, and were caught on film abusing a Palestinian detainee and striking a protester, apparently unprovoked. On Sunday night, the police removed the blockades around Damascus Gate, apparently realizing that this policy was counterproductive, but the violence did not cease.

A Palestinian protester argues with Israeli security forces outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 24, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

All of this comes amid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which often sees heightened tensions, and as the Palestinian Authority deliberates whether or not — but most likely not — to hold elections for the first time in some 15 years, whose outcome could radically alter the dynamics between Israel and the Palestinians.

The IDF fears that the convergence of these three events — Jerusalem unrest, Ramadan and Palestinian elections — could lead to a larger conflict with terror groups in both the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. And while the government could take further steps to ease tensions in the capital, the issue of the likely-to-be-canceled Palestinian elections is largely out of its hands.

Over the past year, terror groups in the Strip have largely abided by a ceasefire agreement with Israel, which allowed additional international aid and development into the enclave in exchange for calm, something that was desperately needed in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

This current threat of violence on the Palestinian front comes at a time when Israeli lawmakers would rather be focusing on other issues — not least among them forming a government.

An Israeli soldier uses a mask to hold a piece of debris from a Syrian surface-to-air missile that landed near the Dimona nuclear site in Israel’s southern Negev desert, on April 22, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Israel is also currently involved in an ongoing, long-simmering war with Iran in Syria. This came to the fore last Thursday, when pieces of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile that had been fired at an IDF fighter jet landed in southern Israel, triggering sirens and a failed interception attempt by an Israeli air defense system.

The IDF has also been fighting Iran at sea, conducting strikes and raids on its oil tankers, delivering fuel to Syria in violation of international embargoes. On Saturday, one such ship was reportedly attacked off the Syrian coast, though it was not immediately clear if Israel was involved.

In addition, Israel has its gaze fixed on Vienna, Austria, where US President Joe Biden is negotiating with Tehran through European intermediaries over a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal, a move that Jerusalem vehemently opposes.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi hosts a meeting with senior military officials on April 24, 2021 amid soaring Gaza tensions. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Sunday night, an Israeli security delegation — now not including Kohavi — took off for Washington to meet with American counterparts over the course of the week in a highly improbable effort to keep the United States from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal or at least to make the agreement more robust, with improved oversight.

The Gaza-ruling Hamas, which has for years worked out precisely how far it can push Israel before it triggers a major response, likely knows that Jerusalem is not interested in getting roped into a conflict in the Strip — meaning it can afford to allow terror groups to launch some 40 rockets at southern Israel, knowing that the IDF will keep its retaliations limited.

And indeed this was the case this weekend. After 36 rockets were launched toward Israel on Friday night and early Saturday morning, several of which actually struck inside Israeli communities, the IDF responded with a tank strike on an unmanned Hamas observation post and air raids targeting launchpads and other infrastructure — far from a major blow to the terror group. When four more projectiles were fired at southern Israel on Saturday night, the Israeli military refrained from retaliating at all.

Since then, both sides have put out both reassuring and threatening messages to one another, publicly and through the Egyptian military, making it clear that neither side wants a larger conflict but that each was prepared to fight if one were to break out.

It is a situation that Israel has found itself in many times before, often resulting in multiple days of intense fighting and with little to show for it at the end.

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