What Hamas is signalling

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar  photo Mohammed Sale, Reuters

There is no shortage of reasons in Gaza for the rocket fire on Israel, and it comes at a most sensitive time.

This time, it would seem, the explanation that it was all a mistake will not be accepted. Not that it was taken seriously last time by the powers that be. The excuse was put out for external consumption when two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv, in order justify the lack of a sharp response from Israel. Now, even Hamas is not bothering to say that it was a mistake by the operator on duty (who last time was supposedly punished), or caused by lightning, or the devil knows what. When it looks like a missile, hits like a missile, and causes casualties, it's a missile meant as a signal. So what does Hamas seek to signal, and why now?

There is no shortage of reasons for the rocket fire. The coming days will see the anniversary of the start of the demonstrations along the Gaza Strip border fence, which was timed to coincide with Israeli Arabs' Land Day, and Hamas is already gearing up for what has been termed a "Day of Fury", with mass demonstrations and confrontations with IDF troops. Another possible reason is the conflicts in Israel's security prisons, because of the recent introduction of devices to block mobile telephone calls. Yesterday, prisoners stabbed two warders, one of whom was badly wounded. In the Gaza Strip, rumors spread that several prisoners were killed in the incident. Although the rumors were untrue - a few prisoners were slightly wounded - they spread far and fast. It could well be that a rebellious group within Hamas is trying to drag the whole movement, against the views of its leaders, into escalation with Israel, because of opposition to the talks on an arrangement with Israel.

And of course there is the larger and more cogent reason: sustained pressure on Israel two weeks before the election in order to extract better terms in the ongoing negotiations, with Egyptian and international mediation, on a modus vivendi with Israel. Hamas is demanding substantial economic concessions, international infrastructure projects under its supervision, opening of border crossings to goods and people, and so on and so forth. It seeks all these gains without accepting Israel's conditions, which are disarmament, and the return of abducted Israeli citizens and the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

The measured rocket fire, two rockets here (at Tel Aviv), one rocket there (at the Sharon), indicates an attempt to go to the edge without a general conflagration and real escalation before the election. So far, this tactic has worked quite well. Israel did not respond with appropriate ferocity to the previous rocket fire, and the negotiations continue.

It may be that a line was crossed today, and it's possible that Israel's response will be harsher. The transfer of two divisions to the south and selective mobilization of reserves indicate that the IDF is gearing up, but the more significant step is Netanyahu's return to Israel and the truncation of the visit to Washington, which was so important to his election campaign. Hamas is ready, and according to reports emerging from Gaza its leaders are already in their bunkers, its military arm is on alert, and hospitals are working on an emergency footing.

Israel has already imposed economic penalties: Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories General Kamil Abu-Rukun announced this morning that, following the rocket fire on Israel, the Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings would not open. These crossings allow the passage of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, and also the passage of people, mostly sick people going for treatment in Israel. General Abu-Rukun also announced that Gaza Strip fishermen would not be allowed to put out to sea. Both measures strike at matters that Hamas has raised among its demands from Israel in the Egyptian-brokered talks. The demands include longer opening hours at the border crossings, and expansion of the permitted fishing area.

It is important to point out, however, that for all the bellicose reactions from all sides of politics and the demands for a fierce response, there is no real solution for preventing the rocket fire other than a full-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip, the price of which would be high and the result unclear. I have written in the past that this is the only way to disarm Hamas and the other organizations and restore the Gaza Strip to the control of the Palestinian Authority. The past few years have demonstrated that Israel's leadership is wary of this solution and will do its utmost to avoid it.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 25, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar  photo Mohammed Sale, Reuters
Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar photo Mohammed Sale, Reuters
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