Analysis After a Dozen Gaza Rockets in a Week, Israel Is Being Backed Into a Corner
Amos Harel/Haaretz/December 13/2017
Frequent rocket fire from Gaza would disturb the feeling of security and would put pressure on Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman to act more resolutely
Since the evening of December 6, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, eight rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip into the Negev region. At least three other rockets were fired from Gaza but fell inside Palestinian territory. This is the largest number of rockets fired at Israel since the end of Operation Protective Edge, the war that Israel fought with Hamas and its allies during the summer of 2014. Israeli intelligence agencies attribute most of the rocket fire, if not all of it, to extremist Salafi factions that operate beyond Hamas’ direction. Israel has also identified preliminary steps taken by Hamas over the past few days to rein in the rocket fire, including the arrest of members of these organizations. In the past, the Hamas government in Gaza has known how to make the rules of the game that it has established with Israel clear to these smaller groups – and has adopted a harsh enforcement policy when it has understood that the rocket fire was endangering the stability of its rule in Gaza.
This time, either the message was not received or was not properly understood. It appears that in Gaza Trump’s declaration was seen as an opportunity to let off steam and attack Israeli civilian population centers. The stage of the large demonstrations by Palestinians protesting Trump’s declaration is slowly coming to an end, without leaving much of an impression on the international community, or on Trump either. Now there is a shift to a different approach involving firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, a period during which one “lone wolf” terrorist attack also occurred, involving the stabbing by a Palestinian at the Jerusalem central bus station of a security guard, who was seriously wounded.
The Israeli response to the rocket fire from Gaza has been rather restrained so far. As has been its custom in the past, Israel has said that it views Hamas as the party responsible for violence coming from its territory – and has exacted a price from it by bombing Hamas positions and command headquarters. But the Israeli attacks have generally been carried out when the targets were empty, and the attacks have been planned in such a way as to limit the damage. In one case, last Friday, a member of the Hamas military wing was killed, and the Hamas leadership felt Israel had gone too far. For now, it seems that the Israeli leadership does not want to rock the boat to too great an extent in Gaza.
The Israeli government’s problem is that it does not fully control of the situation. Continued rocket fire and “red alert” rocket sirens will exact a psychological price from the Israeli residents in the region near the Gaza border, who have enjoyed a relatively long period of quiet and a major influx of new residents, as a result of a building boom and government tax breaks for the region following Operation Protective Edge. The traumatic experiences of Protective Edge and other previous periods, during military operations in Gaza and between them, are still remembered quite well in Sderot, Ashkelon and the nearby collective moshavim and kibbutzim communities.
Iron Dome anti-missile batteries intercepted two of the rockets fired over the past few days – and missed one rocket, which fell in a populated area in Sderot but did not cause any injuries. The Israel army made a change recently in how it calculates the area where the rockets are projected to fall (known as the “polygon”), thereby only requiring that alarms sound in a very small and more focused area, and limiting the disruption to local routines in border communities near Gaza. Nevertheless, rocket fire every day, or every other day, would disturb the feeling of security that had been restored with difficulty and would create pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to act more resolutely. The distance could be short from that to another round of violence.
The latest tensions are occurring against the backdrop of the Israeli army’s announcement Sunday that it had successfully destroyed another attack tunnel dug well inside Israeli territory that was discovered along the border with Gaza, the second in less than two months. It appears, however, that Hamas’ actions are influenced first and foremost by another factor, its reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority. So far the commitments included in the agreement have not been carried out. That’s the case when it comes to the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and the resumption of funding for Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
As far as Hamas is concerned, the bad news is coming from almost all directions: Trump’s announcement, the Israeli army’s success in locating attack tunnels and the difficulties with Palestinian reconciliation. If Hamas cannot deliver the goods to Gaza’s residents, who have been waiting with bated breath for a measure of improvement in their economic situation and freedom of movement, Hamas could well find itself dragged once again into an escalation with Israel – as it has acted in the past.
This is the main worry keeping Israel’s senior defense officials and political leadership busy at the moment, and it explains the relatively restrained Israeli response – restraint that could end if the frequent rocket fire continues, and certainly if the rockets inflict casualties.
Analysis Three Reasons We Aren’t Seeing a Third Intifada
Anshel Pfeffer/Haaretz/December 13/2017
Unlike the previous outbreaks in 1987 and 2000, the key elements needed to spark another Palestinian uprising do not seem to be in place
Saturday was the third day of violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip border following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was also December 9, the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the first intifada. On that day in 1987, rioting broke out across the occupied territories following the deaths of four residents of Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in a road accident. Rumors that their deaths had been intentional inflamed passions at their funeral, and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces quickly spread – from Jabalya to just about every point in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It lasted for nearly six years, ending officially only with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
In retrospect, the first intifada had been an event waiting to happen. It just needed a spark. The Palestinians at that point, over 20 years after the Six-Day War, wanted to prove to themselves, the Israelis and the rest of the world that they were not prepared to continue sitting docilely by while successive Israeli governments blurred the Green Line and settlements spread, stymieing the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.
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It was a spontaneous awakening that ultimately succeeded in redrawing the pre-1967 borders and putting the Palestinian issue firmly on the international agenda. It took the established Palestinian organizations – the PLO and its offshoots – months to establish some semblance of control over the efforts and it spawned Hamas, the PLO’s Islamist rival, which was officially founded a week after the intifada began.
The second intifada was a very different affair. It had spontaneous and “popular” elements at first, in the rioting that broke out in Jerusalem following then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. But from a very early stage it had a much more organized fashion, with the paramilitary groups of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other organizations competing with each other to carry out armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and terror bombings against civilians within the Green Line.
Seven years after the start of the Oslo process, it was an attempt by the Palestinians to make gains they had failed to achieve by diplomacy. Palestinian protesters clashing with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border, east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis, December 10, 2017.
Palestinian protesters clashing with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border, east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis, December 10, 2017.Mahmud Hams/AFP
By 2005, with Yasser Arafat dead and his replacement by the violence-opposing Mahmoud Abbas, it had petered out. Ultimately, it was a failure. Israel abandoned the Gaza Strip and dismantled its settlements there, but politically the Palestinians remained divided: Hamas ruling Gaza, the PA the West Bank, both cut off from each other and from Jerusalem by border fences and the separation barrier.
In the 12 years since, many have anticipated a third intifada, but it has not come. With every new outbreak of violence, there was an expectation of a full-blown intifada following in its wake.
In this period there have been four rounds of heavy fighting in Gaza, which have claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians. But the violence failed to spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem. In September 2015, a wave of daily stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks began in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – but while some dubbed it the “Al-Aqsa” or “knife intifada,” it remained an accumulation of individual, lone-wolf actions that tapered off after six months and never became a widespread uprising.
This July, there was a week of widespread protests over Israeli security arrangements at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound (Temple Mount), but it died down quickly after Israel backed down.
While it’s too early to make any definite assessments, it seems this latest wave, now four days old, isn’t the much-anticipated third intifada, either. Friday was the peak of demonstrations, with approximately 3,000 Palestinians protesting and rioting at some 20 flash points across the West Bank. By Saturday, their number was reduced to about 500 and Sunday was even lower. While this round of violence is not yet over – and a security guard was stabbed in central Jerusalem in a terror attack on Sunday afternoon – if nothing untoward happens, it will probably peter out again in a few days.
There are three key factors lacking right now, without which it is hard to see another intifada materializing.
One: Joint interests of the three occupied Palestinian communities.
In the two intifadas, the uprising took place nearly simultaneously among all three Palestinian communities living under Israeli occupation – the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Currently, not only are these groups physically divided to an unprecedented extent, they also have different agendas.
In Gaza, Palestinians are eagerly awaiting the implementation of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, which hopefully will lead to the easing of the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, and a much-needed boost to the local economy. In the West Bank, the economic situation is less desperate and more of a political interest in the future of the dysfunctional PA. But Fatah here is more focused on maintaining the security coordination with Israel, which helps keep Hamas out and President Abbas in control.
The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are probably more disposed toward a confrontation with Israel. But as they contemplate their foreseeable future under Israeli civilian control, they are beginning to explore less violent tactics of civil disobedience in a quest for equal rights as Jerusalem residents.
Two: A decision by the Palestinian leadership to burn their bridges.
The PA in the West Bank and Hamas leaders in Gaza are loath to back a new round of all-out violence in their fiefdoms. They still feel they have too much to lose from chaos. Hamas is calling for an intifada, but only in the West Bank and Jerusalem where they don’t have any control. But an intifada in the West Bank will almost certainly mean the end of the PA – and when tens of thousands of officials and security personnel rely on the PA for their livelihood, there is a vested interest to continue coordinating with Israel and keeping a lid on things.
In 1987, there was no accepted local leadership that had anything to gain from maintaining the status quo. In 2000, Arafat took a gamble that Israel would not dare dismantle his hierarchy. He ended his life trapped in the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas is no gambler.
Three: An end of Palestinian war-weariness.
The memory of the thousands of deaths in two intifadas and four Gaza conflicts inhibits any mass outpouring of rage onto the streets. Plus, there are the scenes Palestinians see on their televisions of the desolation in other parts of the Arab world, like Syria and Yemen. There may be hundreds of individuals motivated to take a knife or homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun and attack Israelis in the hope of becoming martyrs – but that is not a feeling common to wider swathes of Palestinian society. The critical mass of tens of thousands, prepared to risk their lives in a desperate uprising, doesn’t exist. Yet.
There are other contributory elements minimizing the chances of an intifada breaking out. The Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and police in East Jerusalem have tightened their rules of engagement, reducing the number of serious casualties. The absence of mass funerals of martyrs has helped lower the flames.
Likewise, the policy of the coordinator of government activities in the territories to continue letting over 50,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank arrive daily in Israel has created a major incentive for maintaining the calm. At least half the families in the West Bank are reliant in some way on the Israeli economy, and they don’t want to go back to the intifada reality when Israel imported foreign workers to replace Palestinians.
There is plenty of Palestinian despair and anger at the lack of any prospect of diplomatic progress and an end to the occupation. But there is also political pragmatism and the necessity of making a living. For the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, the price of another intifada is simply too high.