On Tuesday, radio commentators were convinced that Jerusalem was not doing enough to confront the unprecedented rocket fire from Gaza. The government didn’t seem to want war and this is the message it’s been signaling over the past six months, leaving its enemies in Gaza to choose how, when and where to strike. This was exceedingly clear when a Kornet laser-guided antitank missile slammed into an Israeli bus near the Gaza border. The attack on the bus presaged a massive barrage of around 400 rockets that began at dusk and continued until after midnight. A trickle continued into the morning. This is precisely the place that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be – faced with a decision of what to do with Gaza. For almost 10 years under Netanyahu, the Gaza crises have percolated, and have largely been ignored.
This is because Hamas is an irredentist terrorist organization – seeking to reclaim “lost” land – isolated by the international community, and its rule over Gaza can be segmented from the Palestinian Authority’s control in the West Bank. As a kind of “bad cop, very bad cop” policy developed in Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are seen as the ossified inciters,whereas Hamas is seen as a gang of terrorists whose threats can be checked by Israel’s mastery of defense technology and total dominance on air, land and sea. The conflict with Hamas is not one where Israel has sought to win by dealing Hamas a decisive blow, or by overthrowing extremists. Instead, it is a conflict that has largely been fought pragmatically, seeking a kind of balance between terror and reprisal. Firstly, this is accomplished by countering all Hamas threats, whether they are missile threats, tunnels or sea commandos. But Hamas has tried other methods, such as the 33 weeks of rioting along the Gaza border. These clashes, usually on Fridays, have led to 200 deaths and have left thousands of protesters in Gaza injured. From Jerusalem’s point of view, checking the riots has been a success, but comes with a price: Hamas knows that Israel doesn’t have an answer to these massive protests. That is why there is no real ceasefire, and why Hamas has tried to push and provoke at every opportunity. It’s hard to map out exactly what caused the recent escalation. Was it the clashes near Khan Yunis in which an Israeli officer and a senior Hamas member was killed? Or was it the Qatari money transferred to Gaza that left Hamas thinking it didn’t receive enough from the deal? Or was it something else? If we look back at past Gaza conflicts – whether it was the abduction of Gilad Schalit in 2006, dubbed “Summer Rains”; the lead-up to Cast Lead in 2009; Pillar of Defense in 2012; or Protective Edge in 2014 – Hamas desired a war. Hamas only fired 100 rockets to trigger Operation Pillar of Defense. But there was not a single day during that week-long operation that Hamas ever fired 400 rockets in a row. That means that the rocket fire from November 12-13 was more serious than during Pillar of Defense. During Operation Cast Lead, one account said Hamas fired 750 rockets into Israel, while the Foreign Ministry said 571 rockets were fired – from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009. Therefore, the rocket fire on Monday night was almost as serious, as all of the rockets that were fired continuously present one of the worst conflicts ever to take place in Gaza. There are many factors that drove Hamas to war in the past. One was the strength of its rocket inventory. With support from Iran and trafficking across Sinai, Hamas was able to increase the range of its rockets. In 2014, it fired at Hadera with M-302 rockets, which have a range of 150 km. – considered a serious escalation at the time. Hamas then arrogantly proclaimed that any attack on Gaza would “open the gates of hell.” What is driving Hamas today? In March, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza with his intelligence chief, Majid Faraj. They were due to visit a wastewater treatment plant and were supposed to achieve some kind of reconciliation, one of many that Fatah has sought with Hamas. But instead, someone tried to blow up Hamdallah’s convoy. Weeks later, the “Great March of Return” protests began, culminating in the deaths of dozens on the day the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem. This is clearly connected – and is an attempt by Hamas to gain relevance and to resist rapprochement with the PA. At the same time, Hamas has been enticed by chances of a cease-fire brokered by Egypt, and of receiving financial incentives from Qatar. Egypt opposes Hamas because of its connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt also wants quiet in Gaza. Qatar has supported Hamas and seeks to help reconstruct Gaza, but both Egypt and Qatar are unhappy with Hamas intransigence. They are also unhappy over the role the PA has been sanctioning in Gaza. The PA role in isolating Gaza often goes unacknowledged. However, over the past six months, it has sought to isolate Gaza, sometimes even more than Israel. In May, Ramallah cut salaries to Gazans. In July, activists protested in Ramallah against the cuts. The PA doesn’t want a separate Israel-Hamas agreement because that will legitimize Hamas. At the same time, the PA is angered by the US Embassy move and has cut off discussions with the US. This leaves both the PA and Hamas unmoored from their traditional allies and channels of communication. Israel appears to have done well in the region in comparison to the isolation of Gaza and the PA. The visits to the Gulf states in October and early November by Netanyahu, and ministers Miri Regev, Israel Katz and Ayoub Kara, were a major breakthrough. At the same time, Netanyahu has sought to focus his attention on the Iranian threat in Syria. A war in Gaza would be the least desirable outcome for Israel. It wants to avoid being dragged into another round of fighting that leads to an inevitable conclusion where it wins the battle, but the slow-burning conflict continues forever. There is no Gaza strategy, nor has there been since 2006 – especially not since the end of Cast Lead in 2009. The details of Gaza’s woes are well known. Whether it is the lack of electricity, or sewage seeping into the ocean, or basic things like the lack of jobs, infrastructure and a future for almost a million Gazans who are under 18 – these facts will not change with the passage of time alone. Neither Israel, nor Egypt, Qatar, the US or Ramallah have a plan to alter Gaza’s current course. The blame can be placed at the feet of Hamas, which could choose to surrender its power. But it is highly unlikely because the terror group doesn’t really have the people of Gaza at heart, but rather a larger agenda of destroying Israel at any cost. With all of these factors in mind, no one wants a war. But a war still may come precisely because it is the only thing that Hamas thinks it can provoke to gain international or even regional attention. A truce is now in effect. But a Kornet fired at a bus and 400 rockets fired at Israel was an expression of its intention to start that war.
Two soldiers injured in seperate incidents in Gaza, November 13, 2018 (Soroka Medical Center).mp4