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Analysis: Managing the Gaza tinderbox

Israël a mené des raids aériens contre le Hamas à Gaza après une explosion qui a blessé quatre de ses soldats à la frontière avec l'enclave palestinienne, un des accès de violences les plus sérieux depuis la guerre de 2014
JACK GUEZ (AFP/Archives)
The balancing act between Israel, Hamas and jihadist groups in Gaza is a fragile state of affairs

The truce between Israel and Hamas, in place since the end of the 2014 conflict, faced its biggest challenge on Saturday.

During the latest escalation, terrorists from Gaza fired a rocket at a Israeli border village in the Sha’ar Hanegev region. The rocket fell on the roof of a civilian home with a family inside but fortunately did not explode.

Had the incident turned out differently, the Gazan front could have ignited into flames of conflict by now.

The latest escalation illustrates the ease with which the three-and-a-half year truce in place on the Gaza border could abruptly end.

Despite the high risks and challenges the Israeli defense establishment has, until now, been able to manage the Gazan tinderbox. It remains unclear how much longer this balancing act can continue.

The escalation began when four IDF soldiers sustained injuries from an explosive device that detonated on the Gaza-Israel border.

It was the first time that one of the radical armed factions in Gaza -- in this case, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) -- succeeded in injuring Israelis since the ceasefire went into effect.

SAID KHATIB (AFP/File)

Israel’s defense establishment had to answer a difficult dilemma: how to respond to the attack in a forceful manner, while preventing the calm in the south from collapsing into a new armed conflict?

Until now, all attacks out of Gaza had been carried out by smaller Palestinian terror groups, including Salafi-jihadists inspired by Islamic State, and the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). PIJ is the second largest armed force in Gaza, after Hamas.

These groups each attempted to challenge the truce, and by doing so, they also challenge Hamas’s grip on power.

Hamas, too, has hung on to the truce -- but not because it moderated its hardline Islamist ideology, or its long-term goal of replacing Israel with a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Rather, Hamas pursues a tactically pragmatic policy of using the quiet to build up its terrorist-guerilla capabilities.

Hamas leaders have also spoken of the need to give Gazan civilians a break from conflict, fearing that a new war so soon after the last one will lead to a collapse of the civilian front, throwing their rule into jeopardy.

Hamas is so concerned about the stability of the Gazan civilian-economic sector that it has offered its arch internal rival, the Palestinian Authority (PA), a reconciliation deal -- one that Ramallah has viewed with the utmost suspicion.

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File

At the same time, the ceasefire has enabled Hamas to extend more tentacles into the West Bank, where it plots the eventual overthrow of the PA. In short, the truce is good for Hamas, and they are therefore keen to preserve it.

Israel, for its part, is using the quiet to build its own military and intelligence capabilities, and perfect its anti-tunnel measures. Israeli border communities are using the truce to flourish. The truce is good for Israel too.

Yet this status quo is only sustainable if Hamas can prevent the smaller armed factions from launching attacks on Israel.

Calculated military force

To encourage Hamas to do this, the Israeli defense establishment has pursued a policy of striking Hamas targets after each cross-border attack, irrespective of who is behind them, holding Hamas responsible as Gaza’s sovereign.

This policy has paid dividends in the past, prompting Hamas to crack down on smaller organizations. The strikes utilized new intelligence to harm Hamas’s weapons and tunnel projects, but have not been large in scale, meaning that Hamas could absorb them, and move on.

But in recent months, the stability of the Gazan front has begun to unravel. There has been an uptick in rockets and mortars, and the unwelcome sound of sirens has returned to Israeli border communities.

Israeli fighter jets struck 18 Hamas military targets overnight between Saturday and Sunday, including a weapons production facility, and a tunnel that was snaking its way from the Zeitun neighborhood, in southern Gaza City, towards Israel.

These strikes represent a sharp, though limited blow to Hamas’s force build-up program. They also hint at deep Israeli intelligence knowledge of this build-up, boosting Israeli deterrence.

Hamas, for its part, did not respond, indicating that it continues to be heavily invested in the truce.

One question that remains unanswered is whether the Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC) acted alone in planting the border explosive, which was stuffed into a flag pole and hung on the border fence during a disturbance on the border on Friday.

The PRC is a small yet powerful terrorist organization. It was founded in Gaza in the year 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada, by former Fatah members.

Said Khatib (AFP)

A radical Islamist ideology, similar to Hamas’s ideology, guides the group, according to a study published in 2011 by the Meir Amit Center Terrorism and Intelligence Information Center. The group’s symbol is similar to that of Hezbollah, featuring a fist clutching an assault rifle. A slogan on the group’s flag features a Koranic quote to kill infidels.

Two of PRC’s factions have a history of closely cooperating with Hamas, according to the study. Hamas has in the past used the PRC to “subcontract” attacks on Israel.

PRC also maintained links in the past with Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Sinai Peninsula, a fact that Hamas exploited to order attacks on Israel from Sinai, and try to evade Israeli retaliation.

Former members of Hamas’s armed wing have jumped ship to the PRC’s ranks.

In 2012, the Israeli air force assassinated the group’s secretary-general in Gaza, Zuhair Qaisi.

Terrorists fired some 40 rockets into southern Israel in response, setting off one of many rounds of fighting that were so frequent in the south prior to the 2014 conflict.

Since 2014, the reality in the south has changed dramatically, and quiet has mostly reigned.

The truce emerged from Saturday’s escalation intact, ready to live another day. Yet, as the rocket that failed to explode on the roof of the Israeli home demonstrates, this tenuous calm could crumble at a moment’s notice.

Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.

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