JERUSALEM – Over this past weekend, Israel and Hamas – the terror group that controls the Gaza strip – sped towards a bloody war, only avoided by a last-minute slamming of the brakes.
In the roughly 36 hours from Saturday morning to Sunday night: 700 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, 350 Gazan targets were hit by Israeli airstrikes, 25 Palestinians were killed (of which at least 9 were terror group militants), and 4 Israelis were killed. Israeli troops were also mobilized to the border with Gaza.
“Just for comparison’s sake…in the last war between Israel and Hamas in 2014, an average of 130 rockets were fired a day over 53 days of fighting,” said Anna Ahronheim, military reporter for The Jerusalem Post, on Twitter, “killing 5 civilians and 1 Thai worker.”
Hamas launched the attack to pressure Israel in ongoing ceasefire negotiations.
While hundreds of thousands of Israelis huddled in bomb shelters and apartment stairwells, the regional game of chicken was paused by an Egyptian and UN-mediated ceasefire. Reports are now coming from Israeli media that the ceasefire was forced on the Israeli Defense Forces because of the upcoming memorial and independence days this week, and Eurovision next week.
“Just like that, a barrage of 600+ rockets went as quickly as it came,” tweeted Eylon Levy, a journalist for the i24 English-language news channel. “We can be sure the next round will come just as quickly. We can’t be sure it will go as quickly.”
Israel and Hamas are overdue for war, which is still likely to come in the next few days or weeks, according to the IDF. The situation is ever complicated and deteriorating quickly, so even though neither side wants another fight, it seems inevitable.
TL;DR: For a variety of reasons, Gaza is in economic and humanitarian ruins. Hamas needs Gaza in better condition if they want to stay in power. Rocket fire is part of the strategy to force Israel to relax the economic and military blockade of Gaza and transfer Qatari money to Hamas, in exchange for regional quiet. Naturally, Israel doesn’t want to negotiate with terrorists. Not playing along means Hamas exerts more pressure.
Soon, Hamas won’t be able to wait for negotiations anymore, and Israel won’t be able to hold back a full-scale response to rocket fire.
The IDF leadership recommends that Israel negotiate to make living conditions in Gaza better and grant real economic concessions to Hamas. If that doesn’t happen – then war.
Though it’s easy to distill the Israel-Hamas conflict to the two main parties, in fact, there are several important regional actors with interwoven motives. They are all necessary for understanding the inevitable war and its impact on the region.
Hamas is a terrorist organization that explicitly calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and Jews everywhere. It has also been the ruling power in the Gaza strip since forcibly taking over in 2007, after winning elections a year earlier.
Hamas’ main competitor for Palestinian political leadership is Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, which is the Palestinian quasi-government in the West Bank (I say quasi because there technically is no Palestinian state in the West Bank). Fatah and Hamas are bitter rivals, with numerous failed attempts at reconciling differences in order to operate as a united Palestinian government.
As a result, the Palestinian Authority has cut off financial support to Hamas. Combined with the economic and military blockade of the Gaza strip by Israel and Egypt, this leaves Hamas nearly bankrupt, as they have continued to finance rocket fire and terror tunnels against Israel.
Gaza, after three Israel-Hamas wars in 2009, 2012, and 2014, has roughly 2 million Palestinians living with only a few hours of electricity a day, no clean water, and a barely functioning economy.
“Well, Hamas is a terrorist organization, so they did it to themselves,” you might be thinking by now. That might be nice to think – but it does nothing for Israel, which has no choice but to deal with the situation in Gaza.
Israel, right now, is in the week of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, memorial and independence day, with Eurovision in Tel Aviv the week after that. In short, sensitive times with an enormous amount of tourists on the way, so Israel wants to keep the Gaza situation, as always, quiet.
Here’s the catch-22, as explained to me by the Israeli general who organized Israeli’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005: quiet for Israel means no rockets and no terror attacks. But that kind of quiet leaves Gaza still deteriorating, because none of the humanitarian or economic needs have been addressed.
That kind of quiet isn’t good enough for Hamas. If there’s no Gaza, then there’s nothing to rule. So they launch rockets at sensitive times to get Israel’s attention and force the transfer of millions of dollars from Qatar ($15 million back in November, $30 million now) to Gaza. Money for quiet, just like this past weekend.
“If anyone wonders what the source of Hamas’ decision is to escalate, we should look back six months to the unfortunate decision of our prime minister to bring into Gaza $15 million in cash that Qatar transferred to the Hamas coffers,” tweeted Avi Issacharoff, the Middle East analyst for the Times of Israel, as rockets flew. “From then on, Hamas realized that it was possible to squeeze the lemon juice over and over again.”
Which brings us to Israel, and specifically to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu doesn’t want war, and has done everything possible – including approving cash transfers to Hamas and keeping the Israeli response to rocket barrages minimal – to avoid it.
But Hamas is bigger for Netanyahu than just war or no war.
“I have to say the truth: Netanyahu’s strategy is preventing the 2-state solution, and so he turned Hamas (the PA’s rival) into his closest partner,” said Israeli Major General (res.) Gershon Hacohen, translated to English on Twitter by Times of Israel’s military reporter Judah Ari Gross. “Outwardly, Hamas is the enemy, covertly it’s an ally.”
To sum up: Hamas, having driven Gaza to ruin (helped along by blockades), keeps regional peace hostage to get Israel to transfer Qatari money to them and reduce the blockade. That’s bad for Israel because rockets are part of the hostage process. But Hamas is also part of the wreckage of internal Palestinian national politics, which is a benefit to Netanyahu’s political strategy.
Finally, on the edges of all this, we have Egypt and the United Nations. Egypt shares a border with Gaza and controls a border crossing, but it hates Hamas vehemently (the terror group is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious-political force in conflict with Egypt’s military government). And the United Nations has Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, operating in the area.
Israel and Hamas only negotiate through Egypt and Mladenov. So any diplomatic solution to this situation, if any, will come through them.
- Israel invades Gaza entirely, takes the strip over again, and roots out Hamas. This is the option of the desperate mind. Retaking control of Gaza would cost countless lives, take a very long time, and at the end of the day, would leave Israel in control of 2 million Gazan Palestinians on a demolished piece of land with everyone wondering “what comes next?” I haven’t seen a single Israeli general say this is a good idea.
- Israel uses targeted killing operations to take out Hamas leadership, bring them to their knees, and force an end to hostilities. This would, theoretically, end with a negotiated political solution that installs new power in a demilitarized Gaza. This is an approach advocated by Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin, former head of IDF military intelligence. Targeted killings were reintroduced this past weekend, and of course, Hamas leaders don’t want to die, so this is more viable than option 1. But I’ve spoken with Gazan activists who say that no one will ever agree to demilitarize.
- Israel negotiates with Hamas to improve living conditions in Gaza. This is the option that the current IDF leadership stands behind, and that many former generals (including the one who organized the Gaza disengagement in 2005) believe is the only real option. But Israel’s political leadership doesn’t want to look like it’s caving to terrorists and negotiating with terrorists, which holds the process up.
While that’s a sentiment I think most people can agree with, there’s a reason top IDF brass supports negotiations: Hamas is going nowhere, and no one wants war. So the only alternative is to help Gaza recover from years of economic, humanitarian, and environmental damage, bringing some measure of peace and quiet to the area.