Israel Pulse

Will Hamas rockets upstage the Bahrain conference?

Article Summary
On the backdrop of the upcoming economic conference in Bahrain and as arrangement with Israel is delayed, Hamas opts for more escalation.

Hamas is again threatening an escalation, and it appears that it’s not only the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that’s motivating the movement’s leadership to send aggressive signals and messages to Israel.

The most recent round of violence between Israel and Hamas ended a month ago, on May 6, after some 700 rockets were fired toward Israel, killing four Israeli civilians. As with previous rounds, a cease-fire was implemented with the mediation of Egypt and Nikolay Mladenov, UN envoy to the Middle East, after Israel offered various relief measures for Gaza. Has Gaza’s situation changed for the better since May 6? No.

The month of Ramadan, which ended June 3, was one of the hardest Gaza residents have experienced. An Israeli security source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that although Hamas is claiming that Israel has been dragging its feet on implementing a long-term arrangement (or truce) believed to include economic relief for Gaza, Israel in fact made a significant gesture this month in allowing the transfer of goods and raw materials in quantities unprecedented since the closure against Gaza began a dozen years ago, in 2007. The source hinted that Qatari money has been allowed into Gaza in various ways and has reached a great number of needy people in order to allow them to celebrate Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr. This was all done, he said, for humanitarian reasons, to reduce economic pressure in Gaza. Now that the holidays are over, threats from Hamas have resumed. 

In recent days, Hamas' leadership in Gaza has communicated to Egypt and to Mladenov that its patience is running out, and that if Israel fails to fulfill the arrangement, Israel should not expect quiet. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have replenished their rocket supply. 

This is the place to recall that the momentum of the arrangement talks, which began in summer 2018, came to a halt six months ago, in December, following the early dissolution of the 20th Knesset and the announcement of elections for April 9. Hamas was aware of the pressure the Israeli government was under because of the elections and gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “extension” until they concluded. After that, theoretically, Netanyahu would be free of the political obstacles preventing him from fully implementing the understandings with Hamas. At the same time, however, Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, and other senior leaders identified Israel’s weak spots and did not refrain from brief rounds of violence to poke Netanyahu, making sure he couldn't forget about Gaza. Hamas’ assumption, which proved correct, was that Israel wouldn't dare start a full-scale war at that point of time because of Independence Day celebrations (May 8-9) and the Eurovision Song Contest (May 14-18 in Tel Aviv).

Netanyahu certainly never imagined that he would be unable to form a coalition and that Israel would then go to elections, essentially having to start all over. One can similarly assume that Hamas leaders as well as the various mediators also did not expect such a scenario. Now the deadline for forming a new Israeli government is October, with elections scheduled for Sept. 17. Only after that can more significant moves be made on the arrangement with Hamas. 

This state of affairs presents Hamas with another opportunity to remind the world of the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. At the end of the month, June 25-26, in Manama, Bahrain, the United States is supposed to convene an international economic summit at which it will reveal the economic portion of the Donald Trump administration's “deal of the century.” No one from the Palestinian side expects any good to come from the summit. The Palestinian leadership is boycotting it. This also certainly applies to Hamas. When it comes to matters of money, infrastructure and investment, however, it is an opportunity for Hamas to remind the world that Gaza is suffering and needs priority treatment.

Of course, there’s a huge paradox here. On the one hand, the leaders of the movement see danger in the diplomatic plan drafted by the US administration. On the other hand, for Hamas, the Bahrain conference must not end without its participants grasping the extent of the distress in Gaza, and even more so, the danger involved for the entire Middle East if the issue of the blockade remains unresolved. This paradox is not surprising. On the one hand, Hamas has always flown the flag of jihad like no other, declaring that it will never recognize Israel’s right to exist, and on the other hand, perhaps lacking any other choice, it faces reality and reaches understandings with Israel.

This is the case with the Bahrain conference. Hamas doesn’t endorse it, but eagerly anticipates good economic news to come from it. For this to happen, it must make some noise, and as always, heat up the border with Israel.

“In a predictable ritual, all the signs on the ground evince that at the end of this month it won’t be quiet on the Gaza border,” the Israeli security source said. A source in the organizing committee for the border protests said on June 4 to Haaretz correspondent Jackie Houri that the protesters will return to nightly activity near the border fence and will once again launch incendiary balloons, as has come to pass. 

Israel, despite the incendiary balloons, is making great efforts to help Gaza, by expanding the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles, letting in various goods and even granting permits to businessmen from Gaza to enter Israel in order to increase commerce with Israeli companies. That said, generating commerce and allowing in various products and raw materials are almost meaningless when in Gaza purchasing power is nonexistent, there are no new projects to create jobs, and everyone expects Qatari money like they do oxygen. 

A Hamas political source who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity said that without quick and significant progress to improve the situation, Hamas has no reason to adhere to the cease-fire. He denied that the Bahrain conference is what's motivating the movement to flex some muscle and argued that Hamas is ready to fulfill its part of the understanding if Israel upholds its part and fulfills its commitments. The expanded fishing zone aside, Hamas remains unconvinced that Israel is truly interested in helping resolve the dire situation in Gaza. He further argued that the current protests at the border are being organized spontaneously by Gaza residents, “who feel Israeli pressure and the distress and hopelessness of improving their situation.” 

Every time Hamas threatens to hold border protests or renew rocket fire, Israel explains it as a response to one or another event, such as Eurovision, elections, Independence Day, the Bahrain conference and so on. These are not, however, the actual reasons for the threats. It is Hamas simply taking advantage of the opportunities available. 

The situation in Gaza is volatile and demands a comprehensive solution. One or another date or event might only be a small warning sign, but they add up to one giant warning. Gaza in its current state represents a serious threat to Israel’s security. Another armed conflict is only a matter of time. 

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Found in: Israeli elections, Gaza

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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