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Analysis

The Jerusalem butterfly effect: What Hamas stands to gain from Gaza rocket fire

The terror group’s controlled escalation in the south sends a clear message to Israel over Jewish extremists’ actions in the capital, while bolstering its credentials internally

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.

Composite: (L) Rockets are fired toward the sea during a military drill along a beach off of Gaza City on April 24, 2021, hours after fighting with Israel, (R) Israeli police officers clash with Palestinians outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 22, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP / Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Composite: (L) Rockets are fired toward the sea during a military drill along a beach off of Gaza City on April 24, 2021, hours after fighting with Israel, (R) Israeli police officers clash with Palestinians outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 22, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP / Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The events of recent days, and particularly the barrage of rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip over the weekend, take us back to the days before the COVID-19 pandemic, when limited skirmishes between Israel and Hamas occurred every few weeks.

The pandemic led to one of the quietest periods known to both sides, amid a desire by Hamas and the Israeli government to maintain the status quo. Israel prefers a Hamas regime in Gaza that keeps the peace over the alternative of war with the Strip. Meanwhile, Hamas understands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is a partner for under-the-table “business.” Open negotiations between the sides are of course out of the question, but not so secret arrangements on an array of issues that can improve the situation in Gaza and strengthen Hamas’s hold on the Strip.

The renewed fire overnight Friday-Saturday does not necessarily herald a change in Hamas policy. The organization doesn’t want a large-scale escalation, but is trying to produce a controlled and targeted one: Proof of this lies in the fact that most of the rockets impacted open areas. If Hamas had wanted to strike populated towns, it could have done so.

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

The group that claimed responsibility for the rocket fire was the Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It without a doubt received the go-ahead from Hamas and its armed wing.

Indeed, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, issued a statement on Friday stating that it would respond to the “attack on Jerusalem.”

The goal of the controlled escalation is twofold.

First, it delivers a clear message to Israel: Whoever goes to sleep with Bentzi Gopstein of the extremist Lehavov group, which organized the Jewish unrest in Jerusalem on Thursday, shouldn’t be surprised to wake up with rockets on the Gaza border. Hamas wants it to be clear it won’t accept gangs of Jewish extremists sowing chaos in East Jerusalem, attacking Arab homes, or harming Arabs at random.

Israeli border police block members of “Lahava,” a Jewish extremist group, approaching Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“Jerusalem is a red line,” Hamas is saying — an old slogan that always works on the Palestinian side.

The message also relates to Israel’s detention of Hamas figures in the capital in the runup to the planned Palestinian elections. Hamas wants to create an equation: Harm us in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, and you’ll get rocket fire from Gaza.

The second goal, as always, is internal-Palestinian related. With its actions against Israel, Hamas is once again portrayed as the primary mover of the Palestinian arena, in contrast to the helplessness and inaction of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and its leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2020. (Flash90)

This comes amid the understanding in Hamas and Fatah that Abbas is likely to soon climb down from the prospect of Palestinian elections. The Palestinian president understands that he has nothing to gain and quite a lot to lose from the upcoming vote.

Thus, the rocket fire from Gaza amid the riots in East Jerusalem allows Hamas to present Abbas at his weakest and most pitiful — not only as one who runs away from elections with a myriad of excuses, but also one who is unable or, unwilling, to deter Israeli “harm” in Jerusalem.

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