Hamas issues fresh demands, Israel likely to accept; but will they fight anyway?
The past six months were some of the quietest for Israel on the Gaza front in years. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the border saw few rocket launches, no airborne arson attacks and a halt to the violent protests along the fence. From February to July, 10 rockets were fired at Israel from the Strip — zero in the month of April.
This came after a two-day intense exchange of fire in February between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Thursday night saw 12 rockets fired at southern Israel over a few hours.
In light of the recent uptick in violence, the Israeli military has been gearing up for a major outbreak of violence in the Strip — likely not a full war, but another multi-day battle in the vein of the 11 such rounds that the IDF has fought since May 2018.
Following the previous night’s barrages and reprisals, on Friday morning, the IDF reinforced its Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the Gaza area. Residents of the area were also instructed to keep away from the border, including farmers whose fields are adjacent to the fence and ordinarily have unhindered access to them.
In part, the recent lull in violence was driven by the pandemic. Concerned over an outbreak in the densely populated, beleaguered enclave, Hamas reached out to Israel for assistance — something it has rarely done before — and maintained calm in exchange.
That relative quiet began unraveling two weeks ago. Hamas has demanded a new ceasefire agreement, which would guarantee it additional aid from Qatar, along with other funding for infrastructure projects in the Strip. The terror group’s precise list of demands has not been released. In order to pressure Israel to acquiesce, the terror group has been ratcheting up the violence along the border, according to its own officials.
On August 6, terrorists in the Strip again began regularly launching balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel, sparking dozens of fires that burned many acres of Israeli land and caused a small amount of property damage. On August 9, snipers also fired shots at construction workers building the border barrier and then at Israeli troops who came to the area.
And over the past week, near-daily rocket attacks have again become a fixture for residents of Gaza-adjacent communities.
In response to the arson attacks and the rockets, the IDF has conducted nightly reprisal raids on Hamas sites in the Strip since August 12, bombing both above- and below-ground facilities, while refraining from hitting operatives. Israel has also forbidden Palestinians from fishing off the Gaza coast and has halted the transfer of fuel into the enclave, forcing authorities to shut down its only power plant, plunging the already electricity-scarce Strip further into darkness (though it continues to receive some power from Israel).
This tit for tat shows no signs of disappearing. Though Qatar has reportedly agreed to extend its financial aid to Gaza through at least the end of the year, an Egyptian military delegation that visited Gaza this week apparently did not receive guarantees from Hamas that this would suffice and that the violence would halt.
Indeed on Friday morning, several new fires were reported outside Israeli communities north of the Gaza Strip, apparently caused by more balloon-borne incendiary devices.
Over the past two plus years, Israel has generally agreed to Hamas ceasefire demands, allowing Qatar to send in hundreds of millions of dollars to the cash-strapped Strip, along with additional concrete, even though it knows that at least a portion of both goes towards the terror group’s military ambitions.
Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — including, once upon a time, his former opponent, now scorned ally Defense Minister Benny Gantz — railed against this policy, comparing it to paying protection money to the mafia. Supporters of this strategy see it as a way to settle the Gaza issue easily, quickly and with minimal bloodshed in order to allow the military to focus on the more pressing matters of preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria and blocking Hezbollah’s arms build-up in Lebanon.
This policy is not likely to change soon. The chances of a long-term political settlement remains exceedingly low, so long as Hamas — a terror group expressly dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel — remains in power in Gaza, as do the odds of a large-scale military operation in the Strip to once and for all topple Hamas, especially as Israel continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as lingering threats up north.
Though recently Gantz has hinted at the possibility of offering Hamas better “carrots” if calm is restored, in the form of allowing Palestinian workers into Israel from Gaza, this appeared to be more a matter of rhetoric than a concrete policy proposal.
The Shin Bet security service has long opposed letting Gazans work in Israel on a large scale on the grounds that such a system would be used by Hamas and other terror groups to prepare for and carry out attacks and to move messages and equipment between the Strip and the West Bank, and the Shin Bet’s stance on this matter has not changed.
If the past two years can be taken as evidence, this time too Israel is likely to eventually accept Hamas’s demands — at least in part — and Hamas is likely to halt the violence along the border.
Unfortunately for residents of southern Israel and of the Gaza Strip, these ceasefire agreements generally only come following flareups, after hundreds of rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israeli communities and the IDF has retaliated with dozens of reprisal raids — after deaths and injuries and destruction on both sides.
And unfortunately, none of the ceasefires seem to last.