JISS - The Jerusalem Institute for Stategic Studies

The increasing rocket fire from Gaza at Israel reflects a tragic reality in which neither Israel nor the Palestinians want a confrontation, but both sides may be helpless to stop it.  Meanwhile, the Islamic world will not really support the Palestinians.

The increasing tensions along the Israel-Gaza border are the result of several seemingly unrelated events.

They began with the Oct. 31 demolition of an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel. Several senior Islamic Jihad operatives were killed during the operation and the terrorist group vowed to exact revenge – which it has yet to enact.

The situation destabilized further when the reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah hit a major obstacle stemming from the fact that each faction has a different interpretation of what reconciliation means.

Hamas wants to maintain its considerable weapons arsenal and its grip on the coastal enclave, and would like to see the Palestinian Authority being held responsible for Gaza’s image while having no real power there.

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants to regain actual control of Gaza, including disarming Hamas. Unless one of the factions is willing to revise its demands, this is not a bridgeable gap.

The third factor contributing to the tensions is U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on Dec. 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Palestinian backlash over the U.S. announcement included calls by Hamas for a third intifada, and boisterous protests from Abbas, who decried Trump’s “flagrant violation of international law” and declared that the U.S. could no longer serve as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over its “obvious” pro-Israel bias.

The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad exploited the volatile atmosphere and, alongside several smaller Gaza-based Salafi terrorist groups, fired rockets at southern Israel.

The usually more cautious Hamas and the more aggressive Islamic Jihad have been overtly encouraged by Iran, which pledged to lend the Palestinian terrorist groups its full financial and military support in mounting “resistance aimed at blocking the implications” of the U.S. move.

Meanwhile, earlier this week the IDF discovered and destroyed a Hamas terror tunnel dug under the border, making it clear to the Palestinians that such incidents are not the exception to the rule, but rather another phase in the military’s development of advanced technological and operational capabilities that soon will enable Israel to neutralize the tunnel threat altogether.

The tunnels did not enable terrorist groups to tip the balance of power in their favor in the past, but the hysteria in Israel over the threat required the military to devote considerable attention to this issue, and now it is possible to reap the benefits of this effort and allay the concerns expressed by the residents of the border-adjacent communities.

Like the rockets, which are still fired at Israel despite the success of the Iron Dome defense system in intercepting most of them, the tunnel threat has not been completely neutralized. It will, however, be far more difficult for terrorists to use them in times of war, essentially rendering the threat empty.

The convergence of these factors fueled Palestinian activity that fans the flames. Israel, for its part, is sparing no effort to contain events, but IDF retaliation over terrorist rocket fire is designed to clarify to Hamas that Israel holds it responsible for everything that transpires in Gaza and that it will be made to pay, even if the conflict has been a low-intensity one so far.

As Israel holds Hamas accountable, the majority of targets struck so far – with surgical precision – have been Hamas posts. Israel has made sure to limit its strikes to peripheral targets, avoiding major installations or senior Hamas officials. This policy seeks to exact a price from Hamas while allowing it to contain the situation, thus avoiding a rapid security escalation.

But where is all this leading? Iran is clearly pushing for an escalation, as it does not care about the plight of Gaza’s residents as long as Israel suffers both rocket fire and the foreseeable international condemnation over any large-scale military campaign it may mount in response.

Turkey may play a much smaller role but it has close ties with Hamas, so it would not surprise anyone to learn that Ankara is pouring fuel on the small fire burning in Gaza.

Egypt, on the other hand, has no interest in seeing a security escalation, nor does it have any real sway over Hamas.

As for Hamas, Gaza’s rulers are in no rush to provoke a full-scale Israeli operation in the enclave. They have a good grasp of Israel’s abilities to undercut the organization’s military infrastructure and they are aware of the heavy toll a conflict would take on the Palestinian public.

But in the current reality, in which rockets hit southern Israel on a daily basis, there is no real way to ensure the situation will not spiral out of control. Any incident that results in Israeli casualties could prompt a harsh response that would, in turn, make Hamas remove its self-imposed limitations.

One has to remember that the events in the Gaza Strip are not completely controllable, both because Hamas does not employ all the means at its disposal to prevent an escalation and because the rogue terrorist groups, led by Islamic Jihad, care very little about the fate of Gaza’s residents and continue firing rockets at Israel while ignoring the impending threat of escalation.

The potential for both sides to lose control of the situation is therefore very high, despite the fact that neither Israel nor Hamas want that to happen.

The steady rise in tensions on the southern border comes against the backdrop of Hamas’ continued failure to carry out major riots or terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria. This may change over the incitement seen at the emergency session called by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul on Wednesday over the U.S.’s Jerusalem move, and over the Palestinians’ perception that Trump’s decision has made the Muslim world rally to support them.

But the truth is, the Islamic world is cold, cynical and interest-driven. It has failed to rally to help the Muslims butchered in Syria by other Muslims; and it has done nothing to stop the war raging in Yemen, where Iran and Turkey are fanning the flames in the name of past Persian and Ottoman empires, which were known for inflicting pain and suffering on the Arabs.

It is no wonder that a substantial part of the Arab world expressed its aversion of the summit. This created a Saudi-Egyptian-Gulf states axis opposing the gathering, facing a Turkish-Iranian axis to which the Palestinian Authority and Jordan joined, pushing for confrontation.

This put Ramallah and Amman opposite the U.S. – a superpower on which both are heavily dependent – and its regional allies, and it remains to be seen whether this move will have any far-reaching repercussions for Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

One must also consider that the summit would affect the tensions in the south. The Gaza-based terrorist groups may be inspired by the anti-Israel atmosphere in the gathering and exacerbate their aggression. The price, as always, will be paid by the residents of the Gaza Strip – not by those inciting terrorism, the leaders of Iran and Turkey.

 

Published in Israel Hayom, 15.12.2017


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


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