TO THE BRINK OF WAR: HOW HAMAS AND ISRAEL GOT HERE
Thursday 09/August/2018 - 03:23 PM
"The Jerusalem Post" newspaper- By "SETH J. FRANTZMAN ":
Twelve hours before rocket sirens began sounding in southern Israel on Wednesday evening، Hamas was expressing optimism about an agreement with Israel. Goods would flow through the Kerem Shalom crossings، there would be a five year ceasefire and Hamas would return bodies and captives as well as stop the kite intifada of burning Israel’s fields. The UN and Egypt were also optimistic that the ceasefire would happen. It was not to be; 150 rockets were fired over night.
In retrospect، the signs were already there. Hamas had evacuated several of its observation structures along the border، leading to concerns. This came in the wake of sniper fire over the last month targeting Israeli troops. The larger picture is that Israel and Hamas have been at a low-level war since March 30th، when Hamas launched the Great Return March.
Let’s go back and take a look at how the tensions have developed and how we got to August 8th. It is important to understand not only the military march toward greater escalation، but also the regional political context. On March 13، Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and PA Intelligence chief Majed Faraj visited Gaza to open a sewage purification plant. On the way back، they were targeted by a bombing that the PA blamed on Hamas. A week later، on March 25، Hamas began firing rockets and ratcheting up tensions with Israel. It appeared that، having not achieved any kind of reconciliation with the PA، Hamas sought a new round of violence to make itself seem relevant. This came as the US had announced and was planning the move of its embassy to Jerusalem in May. The Hamas was response was the Great Return March on March 30 that coincided with Land Day and was supposed to last until what Palestinians call Nakba Day، the mourning for the loss of the 1948 war with Israel.
Hamas sustained the massive marches in Gaza against Israel’s security fence for two months. For eight Fridays، tens of thousands attempted to breach the fence into Israel. Jerusalem ordered sniper fire against the violent demonstrators and other means to stop the protests، which resulted in more than 10،000 wounded and more than 100 killed on the Palestinian side. The worst day came on May 14 as the US was opening its embassy; 58 were killed in Gaza and 2،700 wounded.
When Hamas found the fence riots were not working، and had not even gained it much sympathy in the international community or region، it resorted to a tactic it had discovered by chance. During the riots and protests some Palestinians flew kites over the border and some Israeli fields caught fire. By July 9th، a systematic campaign of flying burning kites into Israel had destroyed 28،000 dunams of fields and national parks near Gaza.
At the same time، Hamas was testing Israel with mortar and rocket fire. On May 29، a total of 28 mortars were fired into Israel، the largest barrage since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. By the end of the day more than 70 projectiles had been fired. This began a period in June and July of increasing rocket fire and warnings by Israel that war was coming. On July 18، a heavy barrage of rockets led to the largest Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since 2014. Jerusalem reportedly told Cairo، the main conduit in discussions with Hamas، that war would come in two hours if the rockets didn’t stop. But these warnings have become a weekly event by Jerusalem. Avigdor Liberman warned of a long war on July 20. Israel had threatened Hamas leaders on May 14 during the fence riots. On May 29 Israel also warned it was “closer than ever” to conflict. On July 27 Israel again threatened an expanded conflict with a potential operation in Gaza.
Hamas’s response was sniper fire against Israel in July. On Friday، July 20 an IDF soldier was struck by a sniper from Gaza. Reports indicated his rifle may have been modified by Iranian-origin expertise. It is part of a pattern of using civilians to cover Hamas movements، and increased shooting incidents that began in March and continued into August right up to the latest round of fighting. Israel confronted the sniper fire with tank fire and demolishing observation structures Hamas reportedly used to conceal spotters. The larger regional picture is that Egypt has been trying hard to restrain Hamas and also find a path to a ceasefire. But Egypt is not alone. The Palestinian Authority has sought to isolate Gaza by reducing remittances and payments there. That led to rare protests in June by Palestinians in Ramallah against the PA. Hamas therefore is not only trying to deal with a ceasefire with Israel but also trying to sort out a reconciliation agreement with the PA. That’s why the assassination attempt on Hamdallah in March is important and sets the scene for the conflict that began in late March.
Hamas says it wants Israel to end the 10-year blockade of Gaza and to ease up restrictions on goods flowing to the strip. But the US administration under Donald Trump is having none of the Hamas stories about who is responsible for the Strip’s problems. Jason Greenblatt said in May that Hamas had taken the area back to the Stone Age. He made similar statements in opeds and discussions in March and June. Then، in July، Jared Kushner، Greenblatt and US Ambassador David Friedman authored a piece at The Washington Post again pressuring Hamas. Hamas sees the US officials as “spokesmen for the Israeli occupation،” as it called them in July. But it’s clear that the US sees sorting out Gaza as a key to its proposed “deal of the century.”
A last piece of the puzzle is Qatar، which has also sought a role in dealing with Gaza. A major investor in reconstruction and also a previous backer of Hamas، it wants to be relevant. Towards that end، it has sought to play up the chances for discussions with Israel and positioned itself as playing a positive role.
Hamas’s desire to terrorize Israel and seem relevant، and the fact that Iran is also funding Hamas and wants it to be a thorn in Israel’s side، is thus just a part of a much larger struggle going on in which each side wants something else out of Israel and Hamas and Gaza.
Adding up all those agendas، including the rising crescendo of war that has built since March، led to August 8.