Like a broken record: Weekend’s Gaza-Israel flareup another round of almost-war

Like a broken record: Weekend’s Gaza-Israel flareup another round of almost-war

Hamas’s policy of playing with fire, which on Friday included the killing of IDF soldier Aviv Levi, has become a strategy. It’s a dangerous one

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.

Israeli firefighters and security teams fight a fire at and around a cowshed, caused by a kite loaded with an incendiary device from Gaza, at Kibbutz Nahal-Oz on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)
Israeli firefighters and security teams fight a fire at and around a cowshed, caused by a kite loaded with an incendiary device from Gaza, at Kibbutz Nahal-Oz on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

A little after midnight Friday-Saturday, reports began circulating in the Gazan press that Hamas and other Palestinian factions based in the Gaza Strip had agreed to a temporary ceasefire — a tahadiyeh — with Israel. The terms of such a truce were not immediately clear, but it appears to be simply a return to the status quo ante — quiet for quiet without changing the reality in Gaza and the south, or the circumstances that led to this reality.

The bottom line is that Hamas hurried to conclude the round of violence that it started with sniper fire at Israeli forces Friday in which an IDF soldier, Aviv Levi, was killed — the first IDF fatality on the Gaza front in four years.

The Israeli response, in which dozens of targets inside the Gaza Strip were hit with airstrikes — a powerful series of raids, but one which indicated Israel was trying to avoid a full-blown war — led Hamas to fold. It agreed to the “mediation efforts of Egypt and the UN,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. This all happened in the span of several hours.

The events of the past few days and weeks have underlined the extent to which Hamas is playing with fire, and how its policy of taking things to the edge has become a strategy. Hamas is trying to keep Gaza in the consciousness of the international community, and even more so in the Israeli consciousness — through the use of arson devices, rockets, mortar shells, and, now, sniper fire — while also indicating that it is seeking an agreement with Israel and not another round of conflict such as the 2014 summer war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

A photo released on July 21, 2018, shows Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi of the IDF’s Givati Brigade, who was killed by sniper fire from Gaza on July 20. (Israel Defense Forces)

Prior to Friday, Hamas had begun spreading rumors that it intended to put a stop to the incendiary kites and balloons that have sparked fires across areas adjoining Gaza. Senior Hamas officials told Egyptian and international mediation figures that they would act to gradually stop the phenomenon. But there was no drop in incidents — save for last Sunday, after the previous escalation of hostilities. After which the number of incendiary kite launches into Israel quickly picked up again.

Hamas then argued that such attacks were being led by “the people” and not as part of any organized operation undertaken by its fighters. Thursday saw an increase in fires in areas bordering Gaza as a relatively high number of arson devices were sent across the border, and it was actually Israel’s attack on one of the cells launching the devices that exposed Hamas’s bluff: a member of its military wing was killed in the attack, underlining that Hamas encourages and participates in the arson attacks.

Explosions are seen following Israeli strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on July 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Then came Friday — almost no fires, but fatal sniper fire. It’s not yet clear if Hamas leaders wanted to fulfill their promise of revenge for Thursday’s events, and gave the green light for Palestinian snipers to open fire on IDF forces, leading to the death of the Israeli soldier. It’s possible such an order was given, but also that it was initiated independently by a Hamas operative on the ground.

There are some indications that the latter is the case: Unlike after previous attacks initiated by Hamas, it did not order its fighters to quickly evacuate the frontlines after the shooting, which is how three operatives were killed in an IDF strike and a fourth died later. Friday’s events also unfolded as Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was visiting a protest tent encampment near the border with Israel. It is likely that Haniyeh and his men were not aware of the planned attack against Israel.

Later, after Israel retaliated with waves of airstrikes, just a few rockets and mortar shells were launched at Israel. There was almost no response from Hamas, which almost immediately asked for the temporary truce between the two sides.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot seen during an emergency meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2018, following widespread Israeli strikes on Hamas targets across Gaza after a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier. (Ministry of Defense/Ariel Hermoni)

Hamas’s behavior continues to be inconsistent and unclear. It appears that it has the ability to stop the phenomenon of arson balloons and kites. The question remains if it has the will. The same goes for the shooting attacks against Israel.

By relentlessly causing fires on the Israeli side of the border, Hamas is keeping the discussion going in Israel, and in the US, about a possible agreement with Hamas and maintains the terror group’s centrality as a key entity in the Palestinian sphere. The question is whether Haniyeh and his colleague Yahya Sinwar understand that having Gaza make international news because of the loss of life could ultimately lead to a wider conflict.

So, another round of violence tailed off overnight Friday-Saturday, albeit not completely. The reality of rising and falling tensions between Gaza and Israel over the past few months is starting to sound like a broken record: Again and again, we witness escalation, and a feeling that everything will boil over any day now and another war will break out — just like when Operation Protective Edge began — until Hamas and Israel slam on the brakes.

But deep down, all the sides with a stake in Gaza – Israel, Hamas, Egypt, and the UN – must know this status quo where we are always on the verge of war will one day lead to an actual war if there is no significant change in the dismal reality of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

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