Fire consume fields near Jerusalem, May 23.
(photo credit: FIRE AND RESCUE SERVICE)
Israel has announced that it has walked back its decision to extend the Mediterranean fishing zone for Gaza Strip fishermen after several incendiary balloons were launched toward Israel from the coastal enclave, causing fires made worse by an extreme heatwave.
Just days before, the fishing limit had been increased to 15 nautical miles as part of an agreement Israel reportedly reached with Hamas, the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers, through Egyptian mediation. The arrangement, which neither side has officially acknowledged, came after a recent cross-border flareup that saw hundreds of rockets and other projectiles fired into Israel, and hundreds of sorties by Israeli warplanes against military targets in the Gaza Strip, with deaths and injuries on both sides.
Other areas in which Israel is said to have agreed to ease restrictions include goods and financial aid being allowed into Gaza, and the willingness to begin more substantive talks on long-term policies that would make living conditions for Gazans more bearable.
As for Hamas, the agreement appears to have focused on the rocket and mortar fire aimed at Israel, as well as on violence that breaks out during weekly Friday protests along the border fence – but not so much on the flying incendiary devices, which are simple helium-filled balloons attached to burning rags that are let loose to float on the offshore winds heading into Israel.
After the most recent balloon attacks and the devastation they wrought, Israel scaled back the offshore fishing limit not to the 12 nautical miles it had been prior to the agreement, but to 10.
Dr. Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told The Media Line that the agreement might have overlooked the balloons.
“During the last year, Israel didn’t refer to the balloons very seriously, and it was a mistake because we saw that [Israel’s relative inaction against them] actually eroded Israeli deterrence, and it was a sign to Hamas that it could [turn] to the balloons as a very efficient alternative to their violent resistance against Israel,” Michael said.
“I think Israel understands now that it must relate to the balloons [in a more serious manner],” he added, “because they are real weapons.”
It’s not clear who actually launched the balloons, because Hamas is not the sole armed force in the Gaza Strip. Among a number of others are the even-more extreme Islamic Jihad, as well as cells said to be loyal to forces operating in the nearby Sinai Peninsula that have pledged allegiance to the fanatically radical Islamic State and have been waging war against the Egyptians. Yet Israel, when it sees a threat from Gaza, looks toward Hamas.
“Hamas is the address for Israel,” Michael explained to The Media Line, “but as long as Hamas is not able to prove to each of its constituencies some significant achievements, or achievements that are considered to be significant in their own eyes, they will not be willing to stop all kinds of violence, which includes balloons.”
Hani Abu Akar, a Gaza-based political analyst and writer, told The Media Line that Israeli policy had been to seek an “explosion” in the Gaza Strip, for people to rise up against Hamas for making their lives miserable. Israeli’s chief tool for this is an almost hermetically sealed sea and land siege that allows it to control most everything that enters or leaves the Gaza Strip. But according to Abu Akar, this won’t work.
“The siege imposes more than just misery,” he said. “It deprives the Gazans of their sense of control, their sense of freedom. End the siege and Gazans might be more receptive to what Israel wants.”
Abu Akar went on to say that the fishing zone, and extending it or reducing it as a way to control the anti-Israel violence in the Gaza Strip, is something of a red herring and will solve nothing for Israel.
“There is no money [in the Gaza Strip] to buy the fish,” he said. “The fishermen sell most of their catch to Israel. When Israel extends the fishing zone, it benefits the fishermen, not the [other] people of the Gaza Strip. The problem is the siege, not the fishing zone or even the cease-fire.”
The Israelis are clearly willing to ease some of the restrictions they have imposed on the Gaza Strip and its residents as an incentive for reduced violence. But the overall blockade is another matter, for policy-makers in Jerusalem believe that doing away with it would merely allow Hamas and the other armed groups to more freely import weapons that would make the rockets they now have seem like toys.
The problem for Israel, according to the INSS’s Michael, is that the balloons cause enough damage and are enough of an annoyance to those of its citizens living along the border with the Gaza Strip to press their leaders for relief. Yet the government is not willing to react in a “violent manner” when the balloons come sailing across.
“Israel decided to minimize once again the fishing zone. It’s not a violent tool, yet Israel believes this will make Hamas rethink the balloons,” he told The Media Line. “But I don’t think this will affect Hamas, and Israel will be forced to retaliate [more] aggressively.”