To get its cash, Hamas may drag Gaza into yet another fight

With little else to offer long-suffering residents of the Strip, the terror group is gunning for piecemeal concessions via the threat of escalating violence

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.

Fighters from the Hamas terror group at a funeral in Gaza City on September 25, 2018, for a Palestinian who died the day before in clashes with Israeli troops along the border. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Fighters from the Hamas terror group at a funeral in Gaza City on September 25, 2018, for a Palestinian who died the day before in clashes with Israeli troops along the border. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The rocket fire at Israel on Saturday night showed Hamas falling back on its tried and true strategy of escalation.

All the usual elements were there in the days leading up to the attack: combative rhetorical blows exchanged by Israel and Hamas, increasing tension between Fatah and Hamas, unsuccessful Egyptian attempts to mediate between Ramallah and the rulers in Gaza, the closure of the Rafah crossing to departures, a drop in the provision of electricity in Gaza, and, of course, Friday’s violent protests at the border with Israel.

This time the protests saw 13,000 participants, swelling to a scale the Gaza Strip hasn’t seen in over two months — only this time more violent, more determined and seemingly more committed to doing whatever it takes to damage the border fence. And as so often, there was a human cost: A Palestinian woman, Amal Tramsi, 43, was killed.

As far as anyone can tell, the single most important driver for Hamas’s decision to launch a rocket at Israel on Saturday night, or at least to turn a blind eye as another group launched it, was Israel’s refusal to allow the transfer of the next $15 million in cash from Qatar to the blockaded enclave.

The funds are meant to pay salaries to Hamas officials each month, and are seen by Israel and Qatar as a lifeline for the Strip’s terrorist rulers that has staved off a more dramatic escalation in recent months.

A Hamas-appointed government employee in Gaza signs a document to receive 50 percent of her long-overdue salary from funds donated by Qatar, while others wait in the queue, at the main Gaza Post Office, in Gaza City, December 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The transfer is now two weeks late, and Hamas has resorted to its time-worn trick: To pressure Israel into allowing the transfer, all it must do is increase the tensions on the border. Within a few days, without fail, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is sure to agree to allow the cash into the Strip.

One way to look at it is Hamas is taking protection money, telling Israel that regular payments will allow it to ensure that no one fires at Israel. If Israel doesn’t pay, the rocket fire resumes.

It seems incongruous that a right-wing Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, is allowing this arrangement, particularly in an election year. Indeed, Israel is not only abiding the arrangement; it seems intent on preserving it for the foreseeable future in order to avoid another escalation – even when it is clear that some of the funds are going to those sections of Hamas that are preparing for the next fight with Israel.

Indeed, this point is not lost on Gazans. Many in the enclave are eyeing the Qatari infusions with suspicion, as the funds don’t reach the broader public. They are reserved for Hamas officials and fighters.

In fact, Israel is apparently doing even more to help stabilize Hamas’s rule. According to Arab media reports, Israel has pressured Egypt in recent days to allow the opening of the Rafah crossing in both directions even without PA clerks managing the crossing – again, to stave off a broader escalation.

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, on January 7, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

For all that, it’s doubtful that a return to routine at the Rafah crossing will help much. Gaza’s economic condition isn’t improving, even after the fragile arrangement reached informally between Israel and Hamas after the last escalation two months ago.

The Strip needs a more comprehensive, broad-based solution. No such solution is currently in the works, and the ramifications are clear: The Times of Israel reported last week that Hamas has renewed its payments to the unit launching incendiary balloons and kites, as well as to those organizing the night riots at the border fence. All these steps suggest Hamas is seeking to generate more dramatic provocations in a bid to force Israel to allow the Qatari payments, likely alongside other economic demands.

Meanwhile, Hamas, seemingly protected from collapse by Israel and lacking any meaningful accomplishments to show for Gaza’s long suffering, continues to dwell on the disruption of the Israeli commando operation in the Strip in November, in which an IDF lieutenant colonel, “M,” was killed.

Right on cue with the latest spike in violence, Abu Obeida, the pseudonymous spokesman of the Hamas military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, held a press conference Saturday about the November raid. Nothing he presented — neither the alleged photographs of the Israeli soldiers nor the reenactment using street cameras — was new or especially insightful. Every picture had been seen before.

The point was simple: to celebrate (and thus remind his audience of) Hamas’s “achievement” in impeding the Israeli operation. It wasn’t a message directed at Israel, but at Palestinian public opinion, even as Gazans watch warily while their rulers set out for yet another round of escalation with Israel.

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