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Analysis

Latest flare-up of Gaza border violence leaves Israel with few good options

Hamas went ahead with mass rally and inevitable riots, even after deal to resupply Qatari funds; Bennett, just like his predecessor, has to carefully gauge Israel’s response

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.

Palestinians during a demonstration by the border fence with Israel, east of Gaza City on August 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinians during a demonstration by the border fence with Israel, east of Gaza City on August 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

While the knee-jerk reaction to the violence on the Gaza border Saturday, including a Palestinian opening fire at point-blank range and critically injuring a border guard, would be for a forceful response against Hamas, it is doubtful such action would lead to calm or have any other desirable effect for Israel.

For now, the options facing Israel range from bad to worse, as do those facing Hamas, the terror group that controls the coastal enclave.

Hamas is playing with fire for the umpteenth time, looking to bolster its status on the Palestinian street and send a message that it’s not afraid of a fight with Israel.

The group wants to be sure that Palestinians know it has not softened its position on confronting the Jewish state even after reaching a deal with it on the transfer of Qatari funds.

A real confrontation with Israel could cost it more than it is willing to pay, but with new leadership in Jerusalem, Hamas may not actually be able to gauge what the price will be.

Just a few days before the flareup, Hamas and Israel came to an understanding, through an assortment of intermediaries, on the transfer of Qatar’s aid money to impoverished families in the Gaza Strip, with a new mechanism to avoid unphotogenic cash transfers in suitcases.

Palestinians receive their financial aid as part of assistance given by Qatar, at a post office in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 6, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Despite the deal, which should have calmed tensions, Hamas kept plans in place for the rare mass rally Saturday on the Gaza border, under the title of “The anniversary of the attempt to burn the Al-Aqsa mosque.” That it would turn violent was no big surprise.

The anniversary marked 52 years since a Christian Australian tourist set fire to sections of al-Aqsa mosque. He was tried, found to be insane, and was hospitalized in a mental institution over the arson.

Commemorating the event appeared to be primarily an excuse to get the masses to riot along the border. Hamas seemed to want civilians to confront troops, knowing full well there would be Palestinian injuries, and maybe even some on Israel’s side as well.

Palestinian protesters at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The aim of the border riot was likely to put pressure on Israel to speed up the resumption of the Qatari aid, and once that was achieved, to find a solution for the payment of salaries for Hamas civil employees, which was not covered in the fresh agreement.

Until recently, Hamas relied on the Qatari money for its salaries, but since Israel has refused to allow the money to go to that, the terror group will have to find another source for these funds.

Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City on May 22, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Hamas has the ability to find an internal source of funding to pay for its salaries, but it does not want to do so. It prefers to use the money from Qatar for the clerk’s salaries, and collect taxes from Gaza’s residents to fund its military and terror industries.

Since May’s latest round of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas ended, Hamas has been busy replenishing its rocket stockpile and rebuilding the network of tunnels struck by the IDF during the 11-day war.

For Israel this is a classic dilemma: Restraint in the wake of Saturday’s border violence means the erosion of deterrence and an invitation for the next escalation. But on the other hand, a too-harsh response to the wounding of the border guard and the riots would prompt the resumption of rocket fire from Gaza, and Israel would again find itself in a counterproductive round of violence, leading to yet another impasse.

It is clear that the new government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz doesn’t have any magical solution to the Gaza problem. And so, as with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, we will most likely just see more of the dismal same.

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