After the escalation everyone feared, Gaza steps back from the brink

Both Israel and Hamas want to end the conflict, but both need to compromise — and that can look like weakness, says Anshel Pfeffer

July 22, 2018 19:26

At first, the clashes that broke out between Israel and Hamas on Friday night seemed to be the major escalation that everyone was fearing.

It began — as it had the week before — with an attack on Israeli troops on the border.

But this time, a soldier was killed from sniper fire: the first Israeli death on the Gaza border since Operation Protective Edge in August 2014. Israeli tanks and aircraft responded immediately, opening fire on Hamas positions, killing four militants. The Palestinians immediately responded with mortar shells on Israeli villages near the border.

As Shabbat began, the security chiefs gathered at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv and were joined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The IDF began briefing journalists of a major series of air-strikes, unprecedented in four years.

Hamas ramped up its own propaganda, promising that “fire will be met with fire,” while its commanders and fighters scurried underground to take shelter in tunnels.

It looked like both sides could no longer be held back from the brink. The Gazans had little to lose, having lost the world’s attention for so long and failed to extract any significant relaxation of the beleaguered territory’s 11-year closure.

Israelis were fed up as well. For over two months, an unending barrage of flaming kites and balloons had set 2,500 acres of nature parks and agricultural land ablaze. The “protests” at the border every had become a cover for attacks on the fence installations and soldiers stationed there. The ceasefires between each mini-escalation were becoming shorter and shorter.

As waves of fighter-aircraft were launched, it seemed that the die had been cast. The Gaza skyline lit up with explosions. But as the reports began coming in from the ground, there was one thing missing: casualty figures.

Israel hit sixty targets, including three Hamas battalion headquarters, but they were all empty. The air strikes took place after a discreet interval which had allowed Hamas to evacuate its bases.

It was a signal. Hamas’ response was nuanced as well — only three short-range rockets, two of which were intercepted by Iron Dome.

As fast as things had escalated, they quickly died down. By midnight an informal ceasefire had been brokered by Egyptian intelligence.

It is an irony of this conflict that, having managed to kill an Israeli soldier for the first time in four years, Hamas agreed quickly to a ceasefire.

They had their achievement and could present it to the Palestinian public as a victory. Israel had also made its statement by destroying more high-value targets and Hamas infrastructure than usual. But what chance is there of this ceasefire lasting any longer than the previous ones?

There are a couple of encouraging signals this time. Unofficially, Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to prevent the kite and balloons being launched from their territory if Israel eases the closure soon.

Senior IDF sources briefed the media that they had indeed recommended the cabinet to do just that: reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing to cargo and fuel shipments, and extend the fishing area to nine miles off Gaza’s coast. If both sides stick to these conditions, the ceasefire may laBotst a bit longer. But the long-term issues remain unsolved.

For there to be any significant improvement in Gaza’s dire situation, major infrastructure work will have to be undertaken. This won’t be possible with frequent outbursts and warfare and closures. Hamas and Israel have both indicated their willingness to go ahead with a long-term solution, but two issues remain major obstacles: the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas, and Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons

Then there’s the impasse in Palestinian reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is anxious that Gaza’s situation is not solved without his involvement.

For once, both Israel and Hamas are in broad agreement on the goals of the Gaza solution. There is a international backing and likely funding for new infrastructure. But compromises can look like weakness and neither side is prepared to look weak in the eyes of its own public.

July 22, 2018 19:26

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