Dr. Eran Lerman of JISS: “The anti-Hamas demonstrations that indicate a level of frustration and anger not seen before. (The missile fire on Israel) is a familiar tactic to refocus the tension on the real enemy.”
The Wall Street Journal, 26.03.2019
By Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber
Exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas resumed late Tuesday, breaking a fragile calm, as political pressures on both sides threatened to spark a wider conflict.
Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, faces tensions at home over a deteriorating economy that triggered recent protests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning in a tough re-election battle, aware that a tough stance on security is paramount for voters.
Israel and Hamas have been marching closer to war over the past year, with several rounds of violent flare-ups followed by frail cease-fires. The latest incident happened Monday when a rocket launched from Gaza injured seven people in a Tel Aviv suburb, prompting Israel to pound Hamas targets for hours.
More exchanges followed even after Hamas declared an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire Monday night—unacknowledged by Israel. The clashes died down Tuesday morning but flared up again at night after militants launched rockets towards Israel and Israel said it then struck Gaza military targets.
Earlier on Tuesday Mr. Netanyahu had ordered additional troops to the country’s south. The army chief of staff approved calling up additional reserve soldiers.
Mr. Netanyahu had said he was still considering fresh steps to counter any aggression. “We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference by video from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv after cutting his trip to Washington short to manage the conflict.
The United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, warned the Security Council on Tuesday that Israel and Gaza are “precariously close…to the brink of war once again.”
Israeli officials say Hamas is eager to avoid a wider conflict—there have been three wars between the two sides in 10 years that have been far more damaging to Gaza than to Israel. But Hamas appears to be trying to shift the blame to Israel for Gaza’s worsening economic conditions, hoping it can manage the scale of a conflict, analysts say.
This month thousands of Gaza residents staged street protests against Hamas amid rising costs of living, including basic commodities like bread, rising unemployment and increasing numbers of people falling into poverty.
“There is no economy—there is huge poverty,” said Omar Shaban, a political analyst and economist in Gaza City.
The demonstrations mark a rare public challenge to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007. Hamas responded by beating and arresting demonstrators, activists and journalists, according to the United Nations and human-rights groups. It imprisoned over 1,000 people, according to Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights.
In Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition challenger Benny Gantz, who was army chief of staff during the last Gaza war, maintains a slight lead over Mr. Netanyahu in the election.
Mr. Netanyahu has been campaigning on his close ties with world leaders and his security record, while Mr. Gantz and other challengers have criticized the Israeli leader for his response to the flare ups.
In Gaza, the anti-Hamas unrest follows the group’s efforts to steer protests against Israel. For the past year, Gaza residents have gathered at the border fence separating the strip with Israel, demanding an ease to a 12-year economic blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt and the right to return to lands now part of Israel.
Those protests have often turned violent, with demonstrators hurling explosives at the fence, prompting Israel to respond with live fire. Over 200 demonstrators have been killed by Israeli forces since last year.
Gaza has also been hit by the Trump administration’s drastic cut in funds for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including for the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, known as Unrwa, which operates schools and refugee camps in the strip.
“We collectively did not give enough attention to the intensity to these anti-Hamas demonstrations that indicate a level of frustration and anger not seen before,” said Dr. Eran Lerman, a former deputy director at the National Security Council and currently vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “It’s a familiar tactic to refocus the tension on the real enemy.”
Yet Gaza residents are increasingly blaming Hamas for their struggles.
This month Mohamed, a resident of Deir El-Balah refugee camp in Gaza, was on his way to the pharmacy when he witnessed demonstrations against Hamas. He said people were calling for “life with dignity” and protesting the high cost of living.
He saw police and other armed men beating up demonstrators, including family members. He found his father in a local hospital badly bruised and aid 70 of his family members were detained.
“Life is harsh in Gaza, life is difficult,” he said. “Recently it’s been too difficult.”
He described a growing sense of fatigue with the weekly border clashes, which were encouraged by Hamas but have failed to improve peoples’ daily lives. “They favor of the politicians,” he said, “not the locals.”
The Wall Street Journal, 26.03.2019