AT Around 11pm on Monday, a large explosion was heard near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. Reports began to stream in from civilians on both sides of Israeli Air Force strikes, dead Hamas fighters, IDF units concentrated near the border and forces on the move. For a few minutes, it seemed as if a year after Operation Cast Lead, another Israeli invasion of Gaza was under way.
By midnight, most of the rumours were proved to be unfounded. There had indeed been an explosion in which two Hamas members were killed, but it was unrelated to any Israeli action and no operation was under way. The speed, though, with which the rumours had swept the region was a sign of just how frayed nerves have been in recent days, following a round of missile launches and air attacks. Such intense activity has been highly unusual since last year’s Gaza fighting.
Israel’s defence chiefs uniformly predicted, on the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, that the lull around Gaza was temporary. Hamas had rearmed and had not changed its basic aims, they warned; a new outbreak of hostilities was simply a matter of time.
They were uncertain, however, this week, if the recent spate of rocket launches was the turning point or just a short blip in the statistics. Two weeks ago, a Grad missile was fired at Netivot. Since then, around 30 missiles and mortar bombs had been launched by the Palestinians. Over 10 were fired last Thursday alone. In the same period, Israel retaliated with air strikes four times, twice hitting Palestinian fighters preparing to launch, and destroying tunnels and a missile manufacturing workshop in Gaza.
None of the launches were carried out by Hamas. It was mostly Jihadi groups, who are challenging the movement’s control of Gaza. The difference in this round, emphasised IDF officers, was the fact that Hamas did little to try and stop them.
There seem to be three major factors leading to the current outbreak. First is the need for the Palestinians to prove on the Cast Lead anniversary that despite Israel’s resounding military success, they have not been cowed and still retain the capability of firing at Israeli towns and kibbutzim.
The successful field testing last week of Israel’s Iron Dome, the short-range missile defence system which is soon to be deployed around Gaza, gave them another reason to show that they have not been deterred.
But the most significant reason is that Hamas in Gaza is beginning to lose both its patience and its control.
A year after much of Gaza’s infrastructure and thousands of buildings were destroyed, Hamas is still no closer to proving to the local population that is capable of rebuilding. In the absence of a deal with Israel over Gilad Shalit, not only has Hamas failed to bring its prisoners home, the crossings into Gaza still remain closed to all but the most basic humanitarian supplies.
And to make matters worse, Egypt has announced it will build a steel underground barrier on its border to block smuggler tunnels. In the wake of the provocative Galloway convoy, which infuriated the Cairo government, it has also blocked supplies from going through the Rafah crossing.
Little wonder, then, that voices within Hamas are calling for an immediate resumption of the armed conflict and that the smaller organisations have been allowed to fire on Israel without hindrance. The clashes between Palestinians and Egyptian security forces around Rafah, in which one Egyptian soldier was killed, are also directly connected to the growing feeling of frustration within Hamas.
Most Israeli analysts still believe that at this stage, Hamas has a greater interest in keeping the quiet and will act in the next few days to rein in the Jihadists. Despite the remaining obstacles in the Shalit talks, they still badly want to reach a deal. This would boost their flagging popularity and, they hope, lead also to a more lenient Israeli policy that will allow more supplies through and perhaps even a relaxation of the international isolation.
But Israel, Egypt, Hamas and its Palestinian rivals all have conflicting interests, which makes the next conflagration, if not imminent, then at least inevitable.