The curious common interest behind the rapid Gaza-Israel flare-up and flare-down

Hamas and Israel remain bitter enemies, but neither wants an all-out war, and so both sought to prevent a day’s escalation from turning into something far more devastating

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 home in the southern Eshkol region damaged by mortar fire from the Gaza Strip early on May 30, 2018 (courtesy: Eshkol Regional Council)
A home in the southern Eshkol region damaged by mortar fire from the Gaza Strip early on May 30, 2018 (courtesy: Eshkol Regional Council)

With the tailing off of the Gaza conflict, and the end to the barrages into Israel and the IDF’s counterstrikes, it’s plain that the shared desire of both Hamas and Israel for a return to “normality,” and the avoidance of war, prevailed. Proof of this is that the status quo ante has been restored, with no change to the previous understandings between the sides. Israel and Hamas recommitted to their familiar formula: quiet will be met with quiet.

Neither side wants an escalation. To use a boxing analogy, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and then Israel, put on the gloves for 24 hours, but heeded the bell and retired to their corners at the end of the round.

What set off the hostilities this time? Each side naturally has its version.

In the days preceding the escalation, three Islamic Jihad operatives were killed in an IDF strike at Rafah, and a Hamas operative was killed in the north of the Strip in an incident in which two other Gazans cut through the border fence. Hamas and Islamic Jihad assert that the barrage of mortar and rocket fire at Israel on Tuesday was intended to convey the message to Israel that those deaths were unacceptable, and that they would not accept an ostensible new IDF equation for Gaza. In their telling, it is a breach of previous understandings when “innocent” activities — by which they also mean cutting and crossing through the border fence — are met with fatal Israeli fire.

This narrative, however, conveniently neglects to mention that all four of the Gazan fatalities were terror group members operating close to the border, that Israeli troops came under fire in the incident in which the Hamas operative was killed, and that the Islamic Jihad members had placed an explosive device at the fence.

An improvised explosive device, disguised to look like a set of bolt cutters, is planted along the Gaza security fence on May 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Now that the flames have died down a little, these two terrorist organizations are marketing their fire into Israel as a fully coordinated, joint operation. In reality, the picture is likely more complicated: After the three Islamic Jihad operatives were killed, and it sought to respond, the group’s masters in Tehran encouraged an escalation. For its part, Hamas initially ignored the mortar fire, in order to allow Islamic Jihad to let off steam, but then joined in with the attacks on Israel so as not to lose too many points in Palestinian public opinion. At the same time, Hamas was conveying messages to Egypt within hours of the start of the barrages that it wanted a return to the previous truce.

Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, various senior ministers were indicating an ostensible desire to hit the Gaza terrorists hard while also conveying a sense of “hold us back.” But in Israel, too, it was patently obvious that there was a desire to return to the familiar, if fragile, quiet.

Even when hitting back, the Israeli army was careful mainly to target unmanned positions and facilities. As of this writing, there was not a single Gazan fatality reported in the dozens of Israeli retaliatory strikes.

Rocket and mortar fire from Gaza was far more indiscriminate; in the first Islamic Jihad barrage on Tuesday morning a shell exploded in the yard of a kindergarten. Nonetheless, it appeared that the terror group commanders did not wish to lose complete control and to force Israel into a harsher response. That first barrage came before the children had arrived.

Looking at both sides, there was almost the sense of an unseen hand coordinating where to fire and how heavily, until the previous calm had been restored.

This makes for a curious bottom line. Hamas and Israel, bitter enemies, are both desperately determined to preserve the current situation with respect to Israel-Gaza. This is because the alternative to ongoing tense calm is war — which is likely to bring the fall of Hamas on one hand, and chaos and a much more complex security situation for Israel on the other.

Despite this curious common interest, and even as the truce takes fragile hold, the dire economic and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip means that the potential for a descent into war is ever-present — even though war is something both sides so anxiously want to avoid.

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