Hamas wants calm in Gaza, but situation on the ground is volatile
On their own, several upcoming and ongoing events wouldn’t trigger an escalation, but compounded with the coronavirus, the economic situation and the frayed nerves of the terrorist operative on the ground in Gaza, and we could soon find ourselves in a fight with Gaza.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza this week marked two noteworthy dates. The first, the 25th anniversary of the death of Fathi Shkaki, the terrorist group’s leader who was assassinated in Malta; and the second date, marking three years since 10 of the group’s members were killed when Israel demolished a cross-border underground attack tunnel.
These two dates came and went without incident on the part of the terrorist organization. Another event, however, which will be commemorated next week, could be different: The first anniversary of the assassination of PIJ leader in Gaza, Baha Abu al-Ata. Despite its promises, PIJ still hasn’t avenged his death. Moreover, the organization’s leaders in Damascus are prodding their people in Gaza to fall in line with Hamas, and prioritize calm over escalation with Israel.
This moderate line isn’t accepted by all the group’s members, chief among them al-Ata loyalists. The IDF is preparing for them to possibly take action next week. Although PIJ’s leadership is trying to prevent this from happening – the terrorist who fired the most recent rocket two weeks ago, in contravention of orders, was apprehended and badly beaten – but the authority it wields is only partial and cannot keep every terrorist or rocket on the ground in check.
In Israel, of course, officials prefer the peace and quiet, but there are those will view a PIJ attack as a window of opportunity: If the recalcitrant operatives on the ground do something, it will be possible to act against the group (even if it means several days of hostilities). It’s also safe to assume that Hamas would want Israel to neutralize, on its behalf, those seeking to undermine stability in Gaza; by not responding to al-Ata’s assassination last year, Hamas showed it doesn’t particularly grieve over the removal of its adversaries from the chessboard, and certainly isn’t willing to risk its own critical interests for them.
Manufacturing over aid
The situation in Gaza has never been worse (which has been said many times and is always proven correct). Seemingly, the bottom of the barrel of poverty and despair is especially deep but has now sunk to new depths with the coronavirus thrown into the mix with economic misery. If Gaza survived the first wave of the pandemic in impressive fashion – mainly due to drastic steps of sealing its borders – the current wave is hitting the enclave hard. Although the number of daily tests is low, the latest figures show more than a 10% positivity rate and a growing number of patients in serious condition, to the point of testing the ability of Gaza’s hospitals to function.
Add to this Gaza’s dire economic troubles, which have been exacerbated even further. Thousands of laborers who worked in Israel have been home for months now, and merchants, too, are forbidden from coming and going. This has meant another spike in unemployment and a significant drop in the purchasing power of Gazans, many of whom are struggling to buy even basic goods.
Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata (center) (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)
In Israel, officials are very concerned about this situation. The concern is that in its desperation, Hamas will abandon the path of calm and revert to the path of hostility. Hence Israel is working to advance a series of economic projects in Gaza. The idea is to accelerate employment and manufacturing over financial aid. The person appointed to manage this plan is Defense Ministry Director-General Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, but thus far things have moved along slowly, both due to the constraints imposed by the coronavirus and Israel’s insistence on solving the issue of its captive and missing soldiers and civilians as a precondition for any other progress.
One thing that has been resolved, specifically, is the matter of Qatari aid to Gaza. The monthly payment was transferred to Gaza, two months in advance this time ($27 million per month, of which $17 million is earmarked for aid and $10 million for purchasing fuel). Israeli officials, however, are working with the authorities in Doha to ensure similar aid for months to come in the hope that it facilitates a long-term calm that will allow the sides to discuss a more solid arrangement.
In Israel, officials don’t think the United Arab Emirates will help with the Gaza matter, at least not right now. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE has outlawed, and is a patron of Qatar – which is aligned with the UAE’s main regional foe, Iran. Until this fight is settled (under the umbrella of the United States), the Emiratis aren’t likely to help Gaza, especially when doing so would come at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, which, despite Abu Dhabi’s unfavorable view of it, is still preferable to the Hamas alternative.
With that, Israeli officials are toying with the idea of the UAE replacing the United Nations’ Gaza-based refugee agency for the Palestinians (UNRWA), to which the US and other countries have frozen funding due to widespread corruption in the organization. The Americans also want the definition of refugee status to be reformed and could help establish an alternative mechanism that will sever Palestinian dependence on international aid and create other avenues to allow Gazans to make a dignified living.
Will the flirtation lead to devotion?
These steps will wait until the US election is decided. Gazans aren’t the only ones following the drama in America: The entire Middle East is holding its breath, particularly Iran.
The prevailing belief is that any administration will seek a revised nuclear deal with Iran. The question is the type of deal with it is; Israel wants to ensure that beyond just the nuclear issue, the deal also addresses Iran’s military build-up and support for terrorist groups (chief among them Hezbollah in Lebanon and armed groups in Gaza).
An aerial view of the location of the Hamas tunnel detected two weeks ago (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)
Under economic sanctions, Iran has reduced its aid to Hezbollah and PIJ by tens of percent. If they are lifted, this figure will significantly increase, immediately, and the results will be felt on the ground. Hamas, too – which for now is only flirting with Iran – could devote itself to Iran for a permanent and stable source of revenue. For now, Hamas is keeping the radical-axis at arm’s length and, as stated, prefers calm and non-escalation. We mustn’t extrapolate from this that Hamas has become a peaceful organization: The recently detected attack tunnel in Gaza indicates that Hamas is continuing to prepare for war and is examining ways to bypass the underground barrier Israel has built around Gaza.
This tunnel is extraordinary for several reasons. It was built far deeper underground than usual, perhaps to infiltrate Israel underneath the barrier, and maybe to test the barrier’s capabilities. The barrier – and the technology it incorporates – rose to the challenge admirably, although it’s doubtful Hamas will learn the lesson. It’s more reasonable to assume it will try again, in other sectors and in other ways.
For now, Hamas will try avoiding an escalation. Its directive in this regard is crystal clear, but the ground level is still highly combustible. The anniversary of al-Ata’s death is one possible ignition switch; while the continued hunger strike of Maher Akhras – a PIJ activist from the West Bank being held under administrative detention – is also a matter of concern for the terrorist organization. Meanwhile, dozens of Hamas inmates contracted the coronavirus after an outbreak at Gilboa Prison in Israel. In theory, none of these factors are enough to trigger an escalation but compounded with the coronavirus, the economic situation and the frayed nerves of the terrorist operative on the ground in Gaza – we could soon find ourselves in a fight with Gaza for a few days.