Palestinians try to extinguish a fire in the car of a Hamas commander who was killed in an Israeli air strike on Gaza City, on May 5. (photo credit:“ ASHRAF ABU AMRAH / REUTERS)
By YOSSI MELMAN
‘We feel like we’re dealing with two little kids in a kindergarten,’ say the Egyptians.
Early May witnessed the most lethal and unnecessary round of the violent exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel since the last war. The facts illustrate this better than anything else.
In the 57 months that elapsed since the war in the summer of 2014 known as Operation Protective Edge, not a single Israeli citizen was killed. In the short battle in May, which lasted 60 hours, four Israeli civilians died from rockets and some 30 Palestinians from air bombardment.
In the 50 days of Protective Edge, Hamas and the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fired 4,500 rockets. In the two and a half days in May, they launched 700 rockets.
The two terror groups – new Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi calls them “Terror Armies” – used new war toys in the battle. It is clear that they possess more rockets than Israeli intelligence knew about.
It is now estimated that Hamas and PIJ have around 15,000 rockets, mostly self-manufactured in secret workshops and assembly lines in Gaza, some of them built underground.
The warheads are heavier and the rockets’ range extends to 150 kilometers (more than 90 miles) and can now reach Tel Aviv and further north. Hamas has worked hard utilizing local engineers and technicians, as well as know-how acquired in Iran and Malaysia to improve its accuracy.
Hamas operators showed an impressive ability to fire barrages of rockets simultaneously in order to confuse Israel’s air defense. In one instance, more than 100 rockets were launched within one hour directed at Iron Dome batteries.
Hamas also has small naval commando and anti-aircraft units, a fleet of drones and copters, and a cyber department. True, these are in their inception. Nevertheless, all of them were used in the battle, though obviously no match for the mighty military machine of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Before the last round, the IDF psychological warfare department, which is part of Military Intelligence, tried to create a wedge between Hamas and the PIJ by spreading information and rumors accusing PIJ of plotting and operating against Israel behind Hamas’s back.
But it turned out that during the recent clashes, the two groups worked very closely together from a joint command room, showings a high level of coordination, command and control, and a sense of common cause.
All in all, it is evident that Hamas and PIJ to a lesser degree are upgrading and improving their military capabilities and drawing lessons and conclusions from their past failures.
The IDF, for its part, also upended its attitude. It renewed the use of targeted killing, bombed Hamas-PIJ bunkers and command posts in the center of Gaza City, and exerted strong force in order to shock the enemy. It was brinkmanship. The instructions from the cabinet and Gen. Kochavi to the troops were: “Hit hard, but don’t cross the line! We don’t want to be dragged into an all out war.”
Since the two sides didn’t exchange messages during the battles, and they only conversed in fire, Hamas had to interpret Israel’s true intentions by itself. In such circumstances, the margins of error and miscalculation are high.
Yet a full-scale war didn’t erupt. Hamas and PIJ demonstrated restraint and decided not to launch rockets against Tel Aviv, knowing the importance and the symbolic value of the city, which is considered as the beating heart of Israel.
Hamas didn’t want to be dragged into a war during the month of Ramadan, the most important holiday in the Muslim world. Israel was on the eve of its 71st Independence Day and in exciting preparations for the Eurovision, an international song contest. Neither side wanted to ruin its own parties.
No wonder Gaza and Israel wanted a quick ceasefire, brokered as usual by Egyptian intelligence with a little help from Qatar. The round of hostilities was redundant because it changed nothing. The two sides stand exactly in the same spot where they were before it.
In the weeks since the end of this round, the two sides have been engaged in a war of propaganda in which they have tried to convince public opinion at home and abroad that they won and the enemy lost. But it seems neither Israelis nor Gazans believe their government’s propaganda. It is even more evident in Israel. The most ardent supporters of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also know very well that Israeli deterrence suffered a major blow in the May clashes.
The sheer fact that Hamas and PIJ didn’t hesitate to challenge the IDF by launching hundreds of rockets is ultimate proof that while they may acknowledge Israeli superiority, they don’t fear Israel’s response and retaliation.
Their fearless approach derives from the asymmetrical realities of the two sides. Hamas exploits its limited military strength to the maximum to achieve a political goal. Its aim is to lift the Israeli blockade imposed on land, sea and air. Hamas aspires to improve the unbearable standards of living of the two million Palestinians who live in poverty, with undrinkable water, a constant shortage of electricity and a nearly 50% rate of unemployment.
Hamas leaders, especially Yahya Sinwar, who served more than 20 years in an Israeli prison, know very well that they rule on the edge of a volcano. They know that the Gaza population is frustrated and angry, and may turn against them similar to the way in which the Arab masses got rid of or turned against their own governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria.
Hamas is more worried about its survival and the possible reaction of its people than Israeli guns. Thus, the group’s leadership seeks to do everything it can to change the miserable reality of Gaza.
The Israeli government, on the other hand, has no clear strategy or long-term diplomatic goals. Already 57 months ago in the indirect, proximity talks in Cairo between Israeli security officials and their Hamas-PIJ counterparts, moderated by Egyptian intelligence, major understandings were agreed upon.
It was understood that Israel would lift its blockade, Gaza would be rehabilitated and rebuilt with new neighborhoods, a water desalination plant, an electricity power station and sewer projects, to be financed by Qatar and the international community.
Israel even hinted that at the end of the rehabilitation process, it would agree to the construction of a sea port and airport. In return, Hamas and PIJ agreed to sign a long-term (five or maybe more years) sustainable ceasefire without recognizing the right of Israel to exist, but with a promise to restrain all the other small renegade terrorist organizations operating in Gaza.
During the negotiations in 2014, the two sides also talked about the possibility of demilitarizing Gaza – but without any firm commitment by the Gazan representatives.
Very little of what was negotiated there and then materialized. Hamas and PIJ honored the ceasefire for three and a half years. Israel opened two border crossings to allow a flow of basic goods to Gaza and extended fishing waters to 12 nautical miles for Palestinian fishermen.
Realizing that all the other promises were not kept, Hamas and PIJ embarked on a new path, employing tactical measures to break the diplomatic stalemate. They sent thousands of people to protest, demonstrate and occasionally to break and damage the new border fence and underground barrier of 66 kilometers that Israel is constructing to encompass the Strip. They launched arson kites, which set fires and burned Israeli fields along the border and, from time to time, renewed launching rockets in small numbers.
Israel responded by sniper fire and air strikes, killing some 250 Palestinians. To restore tranquility, senior Egyptian intelligence officials, including its chief, Gen. Abbas Kamel, traveled back and forth between Cairo-Gaza and Tel Aviv, and met with Hamas leaders and the heads of Israel’s intelligence community.
All brokered ceasefires were short-lived and broken after a few days or weeks. The two sides have found themselves time and again rolling forward and then backward to the starting point. And this is exactly where they are once again right now.
While the Hamas position is clear and its aims well-known, it is difficult to read Netanyahu and understand what motivates him. As reported here by this writer in several articles, Netanyahu’s long-term strategy seems to be to prevent the creation of one unified Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. He no longer talks about the “two-state solution.” In order to achieve his goal, he is trying to divide the Palestinians into two separate entities – one in Gaza and one in the West Bank, both of which will have limited autonomy.
This is why Netanyahu is weakening the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank by depriving it of a significant portion of its own tax monies collected by Israel. At the same time, he allows Qatar to transfer a monthly “ransom” of $30 million to Gaza, part of which goes to Hamas, enabling it to produce rockets and other armaments. No wonder that his critics, including from within his ruling Likud party and the cabinet, call it “blood money” or “protection money” and blame Netanyahu for surrendering to terror.
The mystery surrounding Netanyahu’s approach is even more difficult to understand since it seems to contradict his own long-term goals. If he wishes to divide and rule, it should be in his interest to help Gaza and its people lead as normal a life as possible. However, by refusing to reach a long-term solution with Hamas he only aggravates the situation.
Not only Hamas understands this reality but so does Egypt. Western diplomatic sources involved in the efforts to reach a comprehensive solution told me that they had heard Egyptian officials express their frustration.
“We feel like we’re dealing with two little kids in a kindergarten,” they cited the Egyptians as saying.
Surely it’s also an Egyptian national interest that Gaza will remain calm. Egypt and Israel are strong allies and, as President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi admitted in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes a few months ago, have enhanced their military and intelligence cooperation in the war against ISIS in Sinai.
“But,” as the Egyptian officials remarked, “with all our best intentions and good services, we are getting tired of Netanyahu’s games.”
It is clear to all involved parties that if – in a matter of weeks after Netanyahu forms his new cabinet – a comprehensive long-term agreement is not achieved soon by Israel and Hamas, a new war will break out once again – with one exception.
This time it will be much more violent. Thousands of casualties can be expected on both sides with great damage to buildings and property. And there is the strong possibility that in the eventuality of a new war, the IDF will have no choice but to conquer Gaza, which its commanders are against as are as the majority of Israelis.