Does anybody know what is really going on with Israel and Hamas?

Israel has descended to its worst internal chaos since October 2000, writes Anshel Pfeffer


FB4RG1 Palestine. 09th Jan, 2016. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar with his son during the festival Hamas in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 9, 2016. © Ramadan EL-agha/Alamy Live News

May 13, 2021 13:48

The police wouldn’t let Asaf Weiss get home. He had been on his way to a wedding when he heard that there was about to be a curfew at 8pm in his home town, Lod. But as he parked his car, police blocked him. Despite the companies of Border Police that had been sent to the town, just 15 minutes from Tel Aviv, the previous evening, rioting was still going on for the third night running. 

For the first two nights it had been mainly local Arab residents. Angry at the clashes between police and Palestinian youths at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and emboldened by the Hamas rockets launched towards Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, they had gone on the rampage, setting fire to synagogues and Jewish schools and dozens of cars. One of the rioters was shot dead by a Jewish resident. 

But on Wednesday night, there were reinforcements. And not just of police.  Asaf Weiss knew what was happening.

“These are settlers, b******s, who have come here to take advantage of the situation and make provocations,” he said.

“They’re just trying to ruin things for everyone. They came in a convoy from the West Bank to heat things up.” 

Some had come from as far away as the Golan Heights to “stand up for our Jewish brothers,” as they put it. The curfew had turned into a sad joke as the two sides stoned each other outside Lod’s main mosque.

The third night of riots, in Lod and a dozen other towns across Israel, was a free-for-all, with Jewish and Arab gangs targeting each other’s neighbourhoods and lynching drivers on the roads. 

Israel has descended to its worst internal chaos since the Second Intifada in October 2000, when 13 Arab-Israeli rioters were shot dead by police. It’s a nasty spasm of violence which may be less deadly than the rockets flying over from Gaza in the short-term, but which poses a much graver danger to Israeli society.

Hamasologists wrong?

Three months ago, a very senior Israeli officer was wrapping up his posting before promotion. For years, he had been one of Israel’s chief Hamas-watchers and he wasn’t shy in the least about sharing his views on the enemy.
Hamas, he said confidently, was “deterred.” It had made a choice for the time being to use more diplomatic avenues to secure its rule in Gaza. Yes, it was still working hard on enlarging its arsenal with more and bigger rockets, as well as drones, but those were unlikely to be put to use in the near future. It had even given up the “marches of return” every Friday to the borders of Gaza when the international media stopped paying them any attention. 

The Hamas chieftain in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, he said — once a terrorist serving a life-sentence in an Israeli prison — was now more focused on “state building”. 

This was very much the consensus within Israel’s intelligence community. Until Monday evening, that is. Hamas preferred to wait patiently for the departure of 85-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before making its move for leadership. Sinwar saw himself as a future president. Not a warlord. 

So were the Hamasologists wrong? Why did Sinwar take the risk of losing all he has achieved in the nine years since he was released in the Shalit prisoner exchange by firing those rockets on Jerusalem? Was it even Sinwar calling the shots?

There are multiple theories. The simplest is that Sinwar has lost control of Gaza to his old comrade, now rival, Mohammed Deif, leader of the military wing and survivor of countless Israeli assassination attempts. 

Another theory is that Sinwar, under pressure after barely winning re-election in Hamas’ internal polls two months ago, felt pressured to make a grand gesture to the Palestinian public over al-Aqsa. 

Or that, frustrated by the cancellation of the Palestinian parliamentary elections by President Abbas two weeks previously, this was Hamas’ alternative campaign. 

And then there’s a still more intriguing theory: Hamas is running out of money. 

Governments across the world, including in Britain, have cracked down on its sources of finance and so Hamas is now looking to Tehran for money. The Iranians currently prefer the smaller, more pliable Palestinian Islamic Jihad and give it more freely, estimated to be tens of millions of dollars annually. By proving their worth as an aggressor to Israel, Hamas hope to get a bigger chunk of Iran’s Gaza budget. All plausible theories. But can anyone explain how Israel was caught unawares?

Hi-tech warfare

If the intelligence community was caught napping, another section of Israel’s security establishment wasn’t. The boffins were ready for this. Most of the details are still confidential, but this is Israel’s most high-tech war ever. 

It’s not just the F-35 stealth bombers that took part in the 80-aircraft strike on 150 rocket-launch sites on Tuesday night.

They may be flashy kit, but it’s not as if Hamas has radar sites that need evading. It’s the much less glamorous developments that make the difference. For example, having one method of communication between the electronic systems of ground forces, aircraft and intelligence-gathering units. Or collecting every bit of information – visual, electronic, signals – into one database that can produce accurate coordinates for an immediate strike or an Iron Dome interception. 

The IDF and Israel’s defence manufacturers pride themselves on tightening the “sensor-to-shooter” process to a matter of seconds. Some of that tech is already being used by other armies, including Britain’s Royal Artillery Corps. It enabled the elimination of 16 senior Hamas commanders in separate locations on Wednesday morning in a tightly controlled series of simultaneous strikes  from “aerial platforms.” 

It would be useful if the country’s political leadership could have a bit of that as well. The knowledge, not the assassinations.

Getting in practice

Politics was not suspended this week. It just went underground while the rockets were flying. 

On Monday, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid were scheduled to meet with Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, to discuss the supply-and-confidence agreement that would enable them to build a majority and swear in their new government. There were even rumours that they would unveil their coalition this week, ready to hold its initial confidence vote immediately after Shavuot.

But as tension increased in Jerusalem, even before the rockets were launched, the meeting was postponed “until things calmed down”. That doesn’t seem to be happening for now and Mr Netanyahu’s supporters are hoping that after this is over, the right wing elements in the alternative coalition won’t want to be seen as “unpatriotic” by joining a government with Arab support. 

They may be disappointed once again, however. 

On Tuesday, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman decided to take to the airwaves. 

“Politics isn’t interesting right now,” he announced. He went on to lambast the Netanyahu government for bringing Israel to this dire situation. The next day, it was Naftali Bennett himself who, in a “special statement”, attacked Likud for “changing from a ruling party to a party that failed in running the country and led us in its carelessness from failure to disaster”. He added that his party, Yamina, would of course “totally back all the government’s steps in returning security. Without connection to political calculations.” But the message was clear. 

Bennett and Lapid are not going to back down. 

Lapid still has three weeks left of his mandate to form a government, and they plan to emerge from this period with a government, even if the rockets keep flying. “This is a crisis, no question,” said a negotiator for one of the parties. “It makes it harder to seal the coalition agreements. But with this coalition of rightwingers and leftists and Arabs, there’s going to be crises all the time anyway. So we may as well have one now for practice.” 

May 13, 2021 13:48

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