On the second day in the current round of hostilities, it appears that matters are far from any conclusion. The barrage of rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip continued today, again at targets dozens of kilometers away, including Beersheva, Ashkelon, Gedera, and Rehovot. Matters took an especially grave turn around noon, with two fatalities in Ashkelon and a third fatality from a direct hit on a vehicle near Sderot.
Where is this round leading, and what is the likelihood of escalation? Hamas's modus operandi to date was simple to describe - not up to the Tel Aviv line, or rather, the Eurovision Song Contest - Ben Gurion Airport line. This is a line that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have hitherto avoided crossing, because the unwritten agreement between Israel and its enemies was based on it. Israel emphasized this line to the leaders of the two organizations located in Cairo. If they cross this line at the current sensitive time before the Eurovision Song Contest, when a government is being formed, and Israel Independence Day, or at all, the IDF will put its large-scale plan into operation. Or, in the language transmitted by the Egyptian intermediaries to Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhaleh, Israel will not stop on the Operation Protective Edge lines, and this time, in contrast to the past, the US president will not impose any limits on Israel.
There is a good reason why any previous deviations from this line were accompanied by explanations, even if unfounded, of human error, a rebellious field commander, or a lightning storm. There is a good reason why the terrorist organizations' leaders in the Gaza Strip emphasized the 40-kilometer line, and hitherto only threatened to shoot past it. This morning, veteran Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said that the formula used up until now was no longer valid, Israel's demand for quiet in return for quiet would not be accepted, and the attacks would continue.
The negotiators in Cairo, however, are singing a different tune, also because of the escalation of the Israeli attacks, which are now being aimed at the senior terrorists' homes, especially those where weapons have been concealed, and there are rocket production factories. At least three of these were bombed last night, and the ensuing explosions testified to the presence of explosives in them. An Egyptian source said that it is now clear to the representatives of the Palestinian organizations that Israel is on the verge of responding far more drastically, and is nearing a change in policy, meaning the option of a ground operation.
Since the main and immediate explanation of the initial rocket fire was the halt in money from Qatar for salaries and needy families before the beginning of the Ramadan holiday in the next 24 hours, it is likely that Sinwar will prefer a face-saving exit from this round of fire. He is likely to settle for the Israelis killed and wounded, an operational achievement showing that Hamas can bypass Iron Dome, provided that he can bring even a part of the money and ease the economic distress in the Gaza Strip to some extent.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and is responsible for the lives of the people living there, cannot afford to have half the population there standing in line for food from charities on the eve of the Ramadan month of fasting.
But where are the suitcases full of dollars now? It was Qatar that ostensibly created the crisis through the absence of its deliveryman, Mohammed al-Emadi, and his voice is also silent now, at least publicly. At the same time, the assumption is that Qatar is involved in the contacts, and has given a commitment to send $30 million, as it was supposed to have done from the beginning, if the parties agree on it.
By what route will the money that could prevent the current escalation be sent? Last week, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nikolay Mladenov met with Qatar Minster of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. They agreed that at least the aid for needy families in the Gaza Strip would be renewed in the form of food coupons. Israel approved, but the escalation late last week prevented it. The money from Qatar was a gift that Israel agreed to give Hamas in the talks that began in September 2018. Initially, only money to pay for diesel fuel for the power station in the Gaza Strip was involved. Qatar later offered aid to pay for the salaries of government employees in the Gaza Strip and for needy families.
The first cash transfer took place in November, when al-Emadi carried the famous suitcases in his car filled with $15 million. Later, following criticism on both sides, the payments were made through the postal bank, and only to employees and needy families whose names were approved by Israel. In the next stage, Hamas refused to accept money in this way, and money was transferred only to families. In the past two months, no money was transferred because of disputes, and also because of the elections in Israel. Now, before Ramadan, cash to get holiday sales started is desperately needed.
Social networks: Criticism of Hamas
The events in the Gaza Strip are diverting attention somewhat from the reports on the Arab news networks. Al Arabiya, the network that follows the Saudi Arabian line, is highlighting what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this morning, and is reporting the Israeli version of events. For example, the death of a woman, her daughter, and her unborn child was reported by the Palestinians to have been caused by IDF fire. Al Arabiya and other networks highlighted the Israel statement that the three were killed by the explosion of a rocket near their home. On the social networks, everything is extreme and polarized. In addition to great sympathy and expressions of hatred, accompanied by caricatures of Netanyahu and Israel, quite a few are blaming Hamas for the situation, in which residents of the Gaza Strip will celebrate Ramadan under bombardment, instead of with banquets. Saudi Arabian opinion leaders are even urging Israel to take control of the Gaza Strip and put an end to Hamas rule, and this appears frequently on the social networks.
Among the Palestinians in the West Bank, the silence speaks louder than words. There is no trace of protest, demonstrations, or any sign of solidarity with their brethren, the residents of the Gaza Strip. The social networks contain more expressions of sorrow about the situation and wishes for a ceasefire than criticism of Israel. Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders are also keeping mum. Except for occasional statements for the sake of the record, there have been no statements or condemnations of Israel.
The PA, of course, would like Israel to overthrow Hamas rule for them, and enable them to regain civilian control of the Gaza Strip. A senior Palestinian leader said last week, even before the round of violence began, that the principle of separate and weakening the Palestinians, Hamas versus the PLO, that guides Netanyahu will not persist, because Hamas is in essence a military organization, and the incidents will eventually expand into a war, culminating in Hamas's overthrow.
This round has escalated more than its predecessor. The IDF attacks, which have killed more than 10 terrorists to date, and the Palestinian organizations have to show a response, but it appears that this time, also, it will end in a day or two with the transfer of money as a gesture to Ramadan and some kind of solutions to appease public opinion. In any case, however, what is involved is a temporary ceasefire.
On the Israeli side, pressure is being exerted on Netanyahu by both new and old MKs to solve the situation. New MK Ofir Sofer (National Union) wrote today on Twitter, "Only a ground incursion and a long-term presence in the Gaza Strip will solve the problem." As of now, however, more senior members of his party are not saying this aloud, and are certainly not making it a condition for entering the government.
Other senior government ministers are proposing their own ideas (not new). For example, Minister of Internal Security, Strategic Affairs, and Information Gilad Erdan said today at an Independence Day ceremony by Israel Police that targeted killings should in the Gaza Strip should be resumed. "The attacks in the Gaza Strip should be stepped up until a long-term lull is achieved. We have to renew the attacks against the military leaders of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip," Erdan said.
The government ministers also commented on the Eurovision Song Contest, adding another element to the considerations in the Security Cabinet. "National or cultural events should not constitute a consideration in the force and extent of the blow that the enemy should suffer," Erdan said, "neither important Independence Day events nor the Eurovision Song Contest." Minister of Science, Technology, and Space Ofir Akunis spoke along the same lines, saying, "We have to ensure the security of Israelis. The Eurovision Song Contest is at the bottom of priorities and considerations."
The Qatar money route
The initial offer: $15 million was agreed to pay for diesel fuel for electricity production.
The upgraded offer by Qatar: The money will be used to pay the salaries of government employees in the Gaza Strip and for aid to needy families.
The route of the money: Stage 1 in suitcases, Stage 2 through the postal bank, and only to employees and needy families whose names were approved by Israel.
The dispute: Hamas is refusing to accept money only for families. No money has been transferred for two months.
Pressure: There is a desperate need for cash to get holiday sales started before Ramadan.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 5, 2019
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