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Analysis: Tensions on Gaza border a delicate balancing act for Israel

The 2014 Gaza war killed 2,251 Palestinians and left 100,000 homeless, according to the UN, and 74 on the Israeli side, all but six of them soldiers
Ashraf Amra (AFP/File)
If the situation in Gaza worsens, Hamas might launch another war to divert attention from public anger

The Gaza Strip is the least stable sector in Israel’s neighborhood, and the truce in place between Israel and Hamas is likely to face new tests shortly.

The potential catalysts for violence coming out of Gaza are growing, though this does not mean a breakdown in the truce is inevitable.

Risk factors include the mass march of Gazans to the Israeli border, planned for this Friday. This is an event that Gaza’s armed factions, led by Hamas, are encouraging and seeking to use to score public relations points against Israel, and against their chief internal rival, the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Additional risk factors are the recent spate of security incidents along the border, and perhaps most of all, the cessation of reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

These efforts were derailed by a roadside bomb earlier this month, which targeted a convoy carrying the PA’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah and PA intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, who were visiting Gaza.

The bombing led Ramallah (where the PA is headquartered) to announce yet more reductions in its funding of Gaza.

The conflict between the PA and Hamas adds to Gaza’s dwindling economic resources, and the poor state of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and economy.

Hamas’s military wing uses the Gazan regime’s available funds for its war build-up programs, and the civilian-economic situation continues to threaten the enclave’s stability.

Iran, meanwhile, is moving closer to Hamas. Gaza’s second largest armed faction, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is a direct Iranian proxy. Tehran’s influence in the Strip is growing, and this is another potential catalyst for violence.

Deterrence and stability

Faced with these challenges, Israel’s defense establishment is pursuing a delicate balancing act.

On the one hand, it is responding to incidents as they occur in a manner that is firm, and designed to maintain Israel’s deterrent power.

As a recent example, on Wednesday, when two Palestinians attacked the border fence and set fire to it, the IDF fired shells at two Hamas observation posts nearby.

Israel’s message is clear; Hamas is responsible for what occurs along the border, and if it allows Gazans – whether they are dressed in civilian clothes, or are members of any of the armed factions – to attack the security fence, Israel will extract a price.

These strikes are part of a wider Israeli military campaign, designed to gradually erode Hamas’s military capabilities, including its offensive tunnel program, but in a way that does not collapse the truce.

Thus far, Israel’s campaign has been successful in this respect.

Hamas, for its part, is not interested in entering a new military clash with Israel, and remains deterred by the IDF’s capabilities and posture.

Effective Israeli deterrence means that the truce can continue, and survive new tests.

Yet Gaza’s economic situation could be the factor that ends up upsetting this balance.

In the event of a civilian economic breakdown, the Hamas regime could face domestic revolt, or mass disorder. Launching a war against Israel might be its only recourse to divert public anger away from itself.

Doing so would endanger Hamas’s entire ability to remain sovereign in Gaza, and it would expose its military wing to devastating Israeli firepower.

However, the 2014 summer conflict began when Hamas decided that it was willing to risk war to try and end its regional isolation, and a similar calculation could push it into conflict once again.

Egypt opened its border with Gaza for the third time this year, only for humanitarian crossings, and it too continues to keep its frontier with Hamas sealed.

As a result, Israel’s defense establishment is making major efforts to try and stabilize Gaza’s economy, to counteract the catalysts for violence, to the extent that this is possible.

The high volume of trucks that enter Gaza every day, via the Kerem Hashalom border crossing, carrying all manner of goods, is part of the attempt to prevent Gaza from collapsing.

Last week, for example, around 2800 trucks entered Gaza, carrying tens of thousands of tons of building supplies, plus large quantities of food, medical supplies, and agricultural goods.

The Israeli government continues to approve of Qatari assistance money, earmarked for civilian construction projects.

According to Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, Qatar is making genuine efforts to ensure that its money does not end up in Hamas’s military wing.

Yet so long as Hamas continues to hold Gaza hostage to its long term program of building an Islamist armed base in the region, these efforts will only buy some stability.

In the short-term future, the area will remain prone to tactical incidents that can quickly spiral out of control, igniting a new conflict, while in the long-term, Hamas has not swerved from its core goal of waging war on Israel, and using any territory under its control to do so.

Yaakov Lappin is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Service.

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