Israel Pulse

Israel helps Hamas regain control over Gaza, rogue groups

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Article Summary
The Israel Defense Forces try to retaliate against rocket fire at Israel while preserving the Hamas rule that is now defied by rogue groups.

It has now become routine: Almost every weekend, the Code Red alert is sounded in the Gaza envelope localities in the south of Israel, followed by what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman likes to call "airstrikes on terror targets." This rather vague term is designed to give the sense that an important airstrike assault has taken place; in truth, however, it describes empty reprisals without any deterrent effect. In turn, this is designed to placate Israel's public opinion. These "strikes" cost the Israeli taxpayer a lot of money but provide zero efficacy. Most of the IDF responses in recent months have been against unmanned targets such as abandoned Hamas observation posts and unimportant structures. Sometimes the Israel air force drops bombs on empty, open territory, causing loud noise that is also heard in the Gaza Envelope localities.

On the evening of Sept. 6, five rockets were fired from Gaza to Israeli territory following the killing of two Palestinian demonstrators earlier that day in the fence demonstrations. The Hamas military wing blamed Israel and said Israel "bears responsibility for the ramifications of the crime." However, it seems the relatively weak Hamas response was mainly intended to appease Palestinian public opinion considering the harsh criticism absorbed by the movement's leaders for its policy of restraint vis-a-vis Israel. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, an Israeli defense source speaking on condition of anonymity assesses that it is possible the military wing was just going through the motions and that's why the rocket fire was directed over open territory. According to our source, when Hamas gets hit — two deaths on the fence, in this case — and the heads of the military wing really want to retaliate, "Their response is much stronger, such as shooting long-range missiles that are much more precise."

Evidently, these are the rules of the game that have been created between the sides. It is a strange game in which each side is very aware of the red lines that it dares not cross in order not to be pulled into a significant escalation — certainly not into war. In other words, each side knows the extent of the "no-choice fire" it must carry out due to internal pressure. It is the extent of fire that would be considered by home public opinion as sufficient response; in reality, it is almost restraint. Israel, on its part, must strike the enemy in order to ward off criticism regarding the loss of deterrence. Hamas, on its part, must fire because it also must ward off criticism from the Strip. One of the ways anti-Hamas criticism has been expressed is through a widening of the "rogue group" phenomenon — heading toward loss of control. Thus, each side must retaliate but tries not to inflict actual harm.

It should be noted that this policy was also expressed in the recent confrontation in the north with Hezbollah. According to a Sept. 6 report in Haaretz, the IDF could have struck a terror cell that launched two anti-tank missiles toward Israeli territory. However, it was decided not to do so in order to end the confrontation with Hezbollah and return to "business as usual."

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Back to Gaza and the IDF's measured military actions in response to the "rogue" terror attacks in recent weeks: The Gaza attacks included intensifying of the fence demonstrations, launching of rockets and using armed drones. The IDF’s reactions to these testify to the cautious thinking of Israel's defense echelons, which of course receives backing from the diplomatic echelons, i.e., Defense Minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel understands that Hamas is in crisis and may even lose control over Gaza, and thus is very careful when it responds militarily. In other words: Israel is heedful of Hamas' precarious position, thus gives its leaders relative peace and quiet to resolve the crisis and return law and order. Israel's guiding principle is simple: Better one Hamas responsible for law and order in the Strip over a multitude of small, undisciplined groups that will make it even harder for Israel to deal with the Gaza Strip.

According to the defense source, one of the salient phenomena in the Strip in the past weeks has been the strengthening of a young leadership that is not directly connected to Hamas; its people are now the main activists in organizing fence demonstrations. "They are gaining power, influence and status within the Strip," the source said. "They are challenging Hamas' hegemony in the Strip."

Fence demonstrations, or what the Palestinians call the Great Return March, began around March 2018 after President Donald Trump announced the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The demonstrations began as a popular initiative: a march toward friction points with IDF soldiers along the length of the Gaza Strip border fence. Over time, they succeeded in turning these demonstrations into an effective, threatening weapon against Israel. Hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators were killed and thousands wounded by IDF fire, some of them snipers. Paradoxically, this gave the protest organizers the status of leaders of a popular protest who succeeded in changing the rules of the game against Israel — more than the Hamas leaders. It is a fact: Israel found itself on the defensive and, for the first time, began to talk about an "arrangement" and easement of the closure on the Strip.

The Hamas leaders immediately understood the potential of these demonstrations, which brought more achievements to Gaza than the thousands of rockets that were fired at Israel over the years — even more than the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Operation Protective Edge, which caused thousands of deaths and wounded over 10,000, with zero achievements.

The Hamas leaders professed to be the ones to "oversee" the demonstrations; Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh, Hilal al-Haya and others came to make their appearances. But the demonstrators themselves — who came week after week — knew who really deserved the credit. As the positive results of the fence demonstrations became more palpable — Israel entered into indirect negotiations with Hamas and expressed willingness for an arrangement and easements on the closure — the status of the fence-demonstration organizers grew. Success led to a radicalization of the demands, which were directed at Hamas and its leaders. The organizers began to insist that the military wing respond with greater power considering the large number of victims of the demonstrations. If not, they threatened to brand Hamas as "has-beens."

That is what happened this past week. IDF forces killed two youths — a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old — and Hamas could not restrain itself. The organization announced openly that a reprisal was on its way, and five rockets were fired into the south of Israel several hours later. What did the IDF do? They responded as above with an attack on "terror targets."

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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