Israel, Hamas: A powder keg waiting for a spark to set it off

MILITARY AFFAIRS: One year since Operation Guardian of the Walls, not much has changed in the tense standoff between Hamas and Israel.

 HAMAS SUPPORTERS attend a protest to support Al-Aqsa mosque, in Gaza, last month.  (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
HAMAS SUPPORTERS attend a protest to support Al-Aqsa mosque, in Gaza, last month.

Just days before the launch of last May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, military reporters were invited for a briefing on the IDF’s largest drill in history, Chariots of Fire.

Journalists were taken to the IDF’s war room, deep underground at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, and were told by senior officers that “our deterrence is a lot stronger than previously thought.”

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, they said in full confidence “knows that it is not worth it to fire rockets.”

The atmosphere was tense, violent riots between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount as well as in the West Bank were breaking out almost daily, and Israel was threatening to evict families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem.

But the IDF was certain it was going to stay quiet.

YAHYA SINWAR, leader of Hamas in Gaza, gestures on stage during a rally in Gaza City on May 24 (credit: ATIA MOHAMMED/FLASH90)
YAHYA SINWAR, leader of Hamas in Gaza, gestures on stage during a rally in Gaza City on May 24 (credit: ATIA MOHAMMED/FLASH90)

“Instead of starting the ‘war month’ [drilling for war for a month] today, we could have been at war,” one senior officer said.

Two days later, Hamas mocked that assessment and fired seven rockets toward Jerusalem, where thousands of Israelis were in the streets celebrating Jerusalem Day.

The drill was postponed, and Israel went to war.

A year later, all the reasons behind the outbreak of the war remain hot issues: the religious incitement by Hamas regarding the Temple Mount has not stopped; dozens of Palestinians were injured and hundreds were arrested during violent riots on the holy compound during Ramadan, and the possible eviction of families from Sheikh Jarrah remains on the table.

Tensions in the West Bank and deadly terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces have even increased in the past month and a half.

It remains to be seen how this week’s killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh will exacerbate the situation on the Palestinian street, already taut with tension.

But on the Gaza front, other than heated threats, ongoing incitement by Sinwar and the publication of fake news going viral on social networks, the situation has remained quiet.

Despite the relatively similar situation on the ground, Hamas has not fired any major barrage of rockets toward the Israeli home front, especially toward the big cities.

Almost every year since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the number of rockets fired toward Israel was in the thousands.

In 2007 Israel was hit by 2,433 projectiles; and in 2008, during Operation Cast Lead, terrorist groups fired 3,557 projectiles. In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was struck by 2,771 rockets; and in 2014, during the 50-day-long Operation Protective Edge, Israel was bombarded with 4,897 projectiles.

Although only 71 rockets were fired between 2015 and 2017, some 1,571 projectiles were fired toward Israel in 2018, and 2,045 rockets were fired in 2019.

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, over 4,300 rockets and mortars were fired, with PIJ responsible for most of the mortar fire, while Hamas mostly launched the rockets.

Since the ceasefire was declared 11 days into the war, less than a dozen rockets have been fired.

It’s not because Israel destroyed their arsenals; the IDF even admitted that such fire was and remains a challenge. Hamas and PIJ continue to produce rockets and carry out tests over the Mediterranean Sea. The two terrorist groups will fire rockets when the timing is right for them. And now, the timing just isn’t right.

Hamas has kept the connection alive between Gaza and Jerusalem as well as with the West Bank and Israeli-Arabs.

According to a survey by Habithonistim, a movement of Israeli defense officials who advocate for the country’s future security needs, Israeli-Arabs are constantly conflicted by questions of political and national loyalty. When asked about the riots that took place in mixed cities during the war, 53% of Israeli-Arabs said that the root cause was national and/or religious, while 22% said that socioeconomic reasons fueled the riots.

Whatever it was, Hamas was able to bring the war to the Israeli home front. And that is where Sinwar wants the war to stay. Because despite his bravado and speeches, he does not want significant retaliation by, or war with, the IDF in Gaza.

Due to the quiet over the past year, Israel has continued to allow Qatari money to flow in (albeit not in suitcases of cash), and has allowed in thousands of Gazan workers, which in turn feeds the economy of the devastated Strip. Sinwar knows that another war would destroy that.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, said that the IDF is “operating under a new policy” since last year’s operation, and is working to keep stability vis-à-vis Gaza.

“In Gaza, we are very conservative in terms of security aspects and policy, and we try to have a broader humanitarian and basic economic policy – to include the workers that come to Israel, as much as we can,” he said.

Both Israel and Sinwar want to keep the distinction between Gaza and the West Bank. And so, a year after the devastating war in the Strip, Sinwar would rather bring death and destruction to the Israeli home front and to Palestinians in the West Bank.

In the West Bank, Israel wants to “keep a strong Palestinian Authority and a weak Hamas as much as we can. We maintain communication with the PA on all levels, and we are moving forward with confidence-building measures as much as we can in a tangible economic value for the citizens,” Gantz said.

But despite Israel’s economic and civilian measures in Gaza and the West Bank, over the past month and a half Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs have killed 19 people in Israel.

“Those attacks were fueled by incitement with the support of terrorist groups, as we saw and we see the spread of incitement in all areas and specifically as far as the Temple Mount during Ramadan,” the defense minister said.

While there were calls for Sinwar’s head following the attacks, Israel instead decided to close the crossings with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The crossing with Gaza, Gantz said, will hopefully be reopened by Sunday.

By closing the crossings, Israel’s policy of separating fronts failed. Despite Israel saying that Hamas wasn’t directly behind the spate of attacks, it could not deal with the West Bank without Gaza.

Like the days before the outbreak of the fighting last year, in briefings to journalists, IDF officers continue to say that Hamas is deterred. But with Nakba Day and Jerusalem Day around the corner, it could be that the terrorist group might again surprise the IDF.

Because the tensions are high, and like everything else in this region, a small spark can ignite a huge fire. •