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Israel’s early elections could trigger new Gaza violence

With early elections approaching in Israel, Hamas is wary of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrawing from the Gaza arrangement and might opt for another wave of violence.
Palestinians survey the scene of an Israeli airstrike at a Hamas outpost in the central Gaza Strip October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa - RC1FBD3435D0

The Gaza-Israeli border has been relatively calm for the past seven weeks, but the quiet appears about to end. Over the weekend of Dec. 21-22, four young Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli troops along the border and Hamas' military leadership held back from responding. During last month's violence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exercised restraint after hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, his sights set on the planned operation to expose and block the Hezbollah tunnels on Israel’s northern border. Despite domestic criticism of his decision on Gaza, Netanyahu decided to give the arrangement with Hamas a chance. Given the tensions in the south of Israel and the complex set of clashing interests there, Hamas and Israel are occasionally forced to restrain themselves, not always successfully.

Back in Jerusalem Dec. 26, the Knesset voted to disband and the next elections were pushed up from November 2019 to April 9. The Hamas leadership understands that the cease-fire arrangement reached with Israel in November could collapse if a campaigning Netanyahu faces heavy election pressure on the issue. The Israeli political system might not accept Netanyahu conducting business as usual with Hamas. The organization is therefore preparing to challenge Netanyahu so that he does not renege on the deal that has already yielded a series of achievements for them.

I can testify firsthand to the extent that Israeli politics affect decisions by Hamas. On the eve of Operation Cast Lead in late December 2008, I covered the voyage of a small aid vessel that departed from Limassol in Cyprus bound for Gaza. The winds of war were already buffeting the Strip. When the boat docked in Gaza on Dec. 20, Abed Haniyeh, the son of Ismail Haniyeh, who was at the time the prime minister of Gaza and currently heads the organization’s political bureau, approached me. He wanted to know whether I thought Israel was heading for war against Gaza with the 2009 elections two months away.

“Are Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planning a war on Gaza to improve their standing within their parties?” he asked. The younger Haniyeh displayed an impressive understanding of political developments in Israel and knew that Barak, then Labor chair, was lagging behind in the polls. Like other top Hamas figures, he figured that Barak might want to improve his ratings by going to war and shifting the agenda in his favor.

A week later, the Israel Defense Forces launched a wide-scale operation in Gaza, not necessarily to help Barak’s ratings but rather because Hamas' armed wing unleashed a massive rocket attack on Israel. Israel’s decision-makers saw a military strike as the only way to stem the rocket fire. Hamas, playing with fire, had sparked a war that cost the lives of over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded thousands.

Now the Hamas leadership is again following the political drama in Israel, seeking to prepare for whatever the future holds. Hamas assumes that implementation of the cease-fire arrangement is at risk, and with it its hold on power in Gaza.

Even before the early elections were announced, Hamas was concerned that Israel would block Qatari financial aid after Netanyahu was harshly criticized for agreeing to the funding. Now Hamas fears, and rightly so, that Netanyahu might seek an excuse to suspend the cease-fire deal, including the flow of Qatari money, to placate his critics ahead of the elections.

Hamas is facing other difficulties. On Dec. 26, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to disband the moribund Hamas-controlled Palestinian legislature elected in January 2006, in which Hamas holds 74 seats and its rival Fatah 45. Does that mean Abbas has decided to sever all ties between the PA and Gaza and to give up on ever joining forces with Hamas and controlling the Strip? Absent a reconciliation between the two factions, it is hard to see how new parliamentary elections can take place in the West Bank and Gaza at the same time.

The dissolution of the Legislative Council, headed by senior Hamas official Aziz Dweik, sent the Hamas leadership into a spin. Uncertainty is their greatest fear. When Abbas dissolves the Palestinian Parliament and the Knesset dissolves itself in the same week, Hamas smells trouble. Add in the repeated PA criticism of Qatar’s funding, with Abbas accusing Netanyahu on Dec. 22 of “paying Hamas in Gaza to carry out terror attacks in the West Bank.”

If elections for a new Palestinians legislature are scheduled in six months, the Hamas leadership would not want to be perceived as laying down the weapon of jihad in return for suitcases of Qatari cash with the consent of the “Zionist enemy.” After all, if it does not wage an armed struggle against Israel and is not considered a militant alternative to Fatah, Hamas has no raison d’etre.

Israeli defense officials also realize that the relative calm could end at any moment. An Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor that Israel assumes Hamas is gearing up for another round of widespread violence. Indications of such plans were evident at a conference held this week in Gaza with the participation of all the Palestinian factions, who were briefed about the latest developments and asked to prepare in case the demonstrations along the Israeli border fence — curtailed in recent weeks under the cease-fire deal — are resumed in force.

Netanyahu will try again to avoid a military operation against Gaza. Three months prior to elections is obviously not the right time for upheavals. As both prime minister and minister of defense, all the responsibility rests on Netanyahu, obliging him to swallow any insults that Hamas feeds him.

Meanwhile, according to London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Netanyahu conveyed to Hamas that he was interested in reaching a long-term cease-fire but would do so only in April. But if Hamas chooses to escalate the security situation, it should expect consequences. The Coordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza warned Gaza residents from the Civil Administration's Facebook account Dec. 26, "The IDF will not tolerate events at the fence. We also want a Friday with no casualties among you, but it depends only on you."

It is doubtful that Hamas will prefer to follow the quiet path and wait for April to make a move, even though the movement has learned the hard way that playing with fire could end in a war with thousands of dead and wounded.

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