Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip February 15, 2019..
(photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
The staging of mid-week riots along the Gaza Strip border portends that Hamas—which has been spearheading so-called “March of Return” demonstrations every Friday for almost a year—may be seeking an escalation with a view to thrusting the enclave’s humanitarian predicament back into the international spotlight.
Israel and Hamas in November were on the verge of a fourth full-blown war in the past decade, averted by a last-minute ambiguous cease-fire that essentially reset the status quo established after 50 days of fighting in 2014. While relative quiet has since persisted, the fundamental issues that make the theater so combustible have not been resolved despite intensive mediation efforts by Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations officials.
"Gaza is a stand-alone problem influenced by four primary factors, though other things can indirectly affect developments there," Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former chairman of Israel's National Security Council and a past adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, told The Media Line. "The first element is how much violence Israel is prepared to tolerate and how willing it is to take steps to help Gazans. The second variable is the Egyptians and if Cairo is prepared to open the [Rafah] border, for example, to ease the situation.
"Another matter," he continued, "is Islamic Jihad and whether Tehran will pressure its proxy to ignite the powder keg. And then there is Hamas itself—its internal turmoil, its responsibility for the citizens of Gaza and how much control it might cede [to the Palestinian Authority] in order to improve conditions in the Strip." In addition to these core issues, however, a seemingly perfect storm of ancillary circumstances and events is emerging on the horizon which could further destabilize the already volatile arena.
This week, Israel approved the cut-off of about $140 million in taxes and tariffs it collects on behalf of and distributes to the PA in protest of the stipends paid by Mahmoud Abbas’ government to terrorists and their families. The Israeli move is opposed by much of the defense establishment, which fears a budgetary shortfall in Ramallah could lead to diminished security cooperation in the West Bank.
More acutely, military officials reportedly told cabinet ministers that Abbas could choose to offset losses—including hundreds of millions of dollars in suspended American aid—by halting monthly transfers of nearly $100 million to Gaza, thereby potentially forcing Hamas' trigger-happy hand. This dovetails with a recent Israeli army intelligence assessment warning that Gaza's terrorist rulers are liable to spark a war in the near future to coax countries into sending it financial aid.
Notably, the PA already has withdrawn authorities from Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the lifeline through which goods pass from Israel into the Palestinian enclave. If duplicated at the Rafah border with Egypt, this could lead to a prolonged shutdown that could leave Gazans stranded.
A tipping point may be reached in April, when Qatar is expected to stop paying for Gaza- bound fuel. That month, Israel will hold national elections and Hamas could use the political uncertainty in Jerusalem to get a short-term upper-hand in an otherwise lop-sided match- up.
This timeframe also coincides with the one-year anniversary of the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, a day that was marred by bloodshed as Hamas directed tens of thousands of people to the frontier to clash with Israeli forces. Moreover, the White House is expected to unveil its much-hyped peace plan soon after the Israeli vote, which Hamas will want no part of and could try to derail by instigating a conflict (this would, parenthetically, serve the interests of Abbas who has rejected the American proposal out-of-hand).
Finally, President Donald Trump seems adamant about fully withdrawing American forces from Syria within the next two months, a vacuum Iran will want to immediately fill—perhaps by unleashing its Gaza proxies on Israel while simultaneously causing havoc in the north through Hizbullah and Shiite mercenaries.
That it will be springtime also is beneficial to Hamas, which is poorly equipped to fight in the winter when its populace would anyway suffer even more.
"All of these considerations are taken into account even though Hamas has probably evaluated that Israel is not interested in a conflict," Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. "Hamas may still pick a fight thinking it can get away with things but at the same time Israel might react strongly to show it will not tolerate monkey business [in a time of flux].
"Hamas is a semi-entity that has a lot of responsibilities," he elaborated, "and if it is rational then it will realize that the limited Israeli response [in November] does not mean the army is unable inflict pain even in the absence of war. If Hamas miscalculates and perpetrates an attack of great magnitude and severity then whatever happens will have nothing to do with voting or anything else." Analysts note that the outbreak of war may be a function of the coalescence of related dynamics or, at times, the unwanted outcome of one move with unintended consequences.
Both scenarios could be in play in the near future, as conditions become ripe for Hamas to push the boundaries in order to test the limits and resolve of its arch-enemy.For more stories, visit themedialine.org
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