Why the Gaza rocket fire? Because Hamas thinks Israel is vulnerable to extortion

Why the Gaza rocket fire? Because Hamas thinks Israel is vulnerable to extortion

Ahead of Independence Day and the Eurovision Song Contest, Gaza’s terrorist rulers see a rare opportunity to pressure Israel, which it knows is desperate for calm

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.

The interior of a house hit by a rocket in the Eshkol Regional Council on May 4, 2019. The family had escaped to a shelter moments earlier (Israel Police)
The interior of a house hit by a rocket in the Eshkol Regional Council on May 4, 2019. The family had escaped to a shelter moments earlier (Israel Police)

At some point overnight Friday-Saturday, Hamas evidently decided to launch a controlled escalation of rocket fire into Israel. It began with rocket fire at Israeli communities near the Gaza border, continued north to Ashdod, and seems set to widen further, as of this writing, given that Beersheba has decided to open its municipal bomb shelters.

This escalation of violence is not solely in response to the deaths of two Hamas terrorists on the Gaza border Friday afternoon, following a Gaza sniper’s fire that injured two Israeli soldiers. Rather, it reflects the decision by the terror organization to try to gain from what it recognizes as a situation in which Israel can be pressured into significant concessions, most especially regarding the transfer of Qatari funds into the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is clearly prepared to take the risk of a still wider conflict, gambling that Israel desperately wants a ceasefire at this moment.

The next 10 days are thus going to be extremely complicated for Israel. The Gaza terror group smells blood.

In four days time, the State of Israel will mark Memorial Day and then Independence Day, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not want to be marking those occasions in the midst of a major escalation with Gaza. In 10 days time, the Palestinians will mark Nakba Day, the anniversary of what they consider the catastrophe that befell them with the establishment of the State of Israel, while Israel will be hosting the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest. Huge numbers of people around the world will be turning their attention to Tel Aviv.

Hamas recognizes that given the imminent Eurovision festivities, it has a real opportunity to create pressure points and obtain significant concessions on the ground. In other words: to blackmail Israel.

Hamas wants money and more money. And some of this appetite can be traced back to the decision by Netanyahu six months ago to allow the monthly transfer of $15 million in cash from Qatar to the Hamas coffers.

The key to a calming of the current situation, as ever lies, in Egypt. In Cairo, the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been holding discussions with Egyptian intelligence officials on a longer-term ceasefire — talks that were continuing even as the current escalation gathered pace. The key demand in those Cairo discussions is that Israel allow the ongoing transfer of the Qatari millions in return for ongoing calm and concessions. Hamas calls this “the second stage” of the understandings — the continuation of the secret agreement reached between Hamas and Israel, with Egyptian mediation, on the eve of Israel’s elections. This agreement, whose full details have never been disclosed, achieved relative calm on the Gaza border. The fishing zone was expanded. There were some easing of restrictions on the transfer of produce.

It’s not clear whether further Qatari cash transfers would be carried out via the United Nations, and allocated for salaries or for poor families. But one way or another, the Hamas demand is the same: Show us the money.

Given the past policies of the Netanyahu government, it seems likely that this time, too, the money will be forthcoming, possibly shortly before Independence Day.

Hamas’s attempts at extortion also stem from its recognition that the Gaza populace is expecting economic and civilian achievements from its Islamist rulers. The fishing zone was cut back again after rocket fire earlier in the week. The economic situation in Gaza continues to be dire.

The Gaza unemployment rate has crossed 50%, and among graduates it is close to 70%. These are astonishing numbers, and combine with the reduction in salaries for Palestinian Authority officials in Gaza (as well as in the West Bank) and the US cuts both in aid to various projects in Gaza and to the Palestinian refugee welfare organization UNRWA.

Hamas fears a further deterioration in the economic situation, and now sees an opportunity to get Qatari money via Israel to at least partially alleviate that.

It does not, however, intend to cut back its own activities, by reducing the budget of its military wings, for example. Indeed, Hamas continues to impose a variety of taxes on the residents of Gaza, which fund its activities including those of its military wing.

Now, with the major rocket fire flare-up, Gaza is hoping to extract further funding, from Qatar, via Israel.

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