January 1st was not a good start to the year for the Israelis, as it was the day that Palestinian Nashat Melhem carried out an armed attack in the heart of Tel Aviv in broad daylight, killing and injuring Israeli citizens. The occupation state and its security, military and political institutions were disorientated; they used all of their intelligence capabilities to arrest him, dead or alive. He remained at liberty for more than a week before being killed by Israeli Special Forces.
At the same time, the intensity of the resistance operations and attacks in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem have increased in the 100+ days since the latest uprising began in October. Israel has been reduced to accusing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of inciting their countrymen in the other occupied territories to attack its people.
The accusations against Hamas and specific Palestinian resistance leaders have put the Islamic movement on full alert in preparation for Israel’s usual option of “exporting the crisis”. This is an old-new Israeli tactic which “deals with a crisis by fabricating a crisis”. The Palestinians in Gaza are concerned that Israel will export the consequences of the Quds Intifada to their besieged enclave. They are convinced that Israel’s punitive measures against the West Bank are already overblown for dealing with stabbings and hit-and-run attacks; efforts to find the attackers are providing cover for the occupation army to carry out a large-scale military operation. The army seems determined to take advantage of this opportunity and to utilise the international atmosphere for it to engage in combing operations for a long time.
Israeli analysts, military experts, politicians and security advisers have in the past few days been discussing what seems to be Israel’s plan for hitting the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza; in particular there has been talk about targeting the tunnels that stretch under the border, and claims that the movement’s military wing has been stepping up its missile testing. Of course, such rumours are usually spiced-up to exaggerate Hamas’s military capabilities in order to prepare public opinion for the fourth war on Gaza, while the territory still hasn’t recovered from the past three Israeli offensives.
Hamas has found itself in the position of having to respond to the Israeli campaign against it with what it believes are deterrent messages by its leaders, in order to rein-in Israel’s intentions towards Gaza. It has also warned the Israeli army that it refuses to stand idly by in the face of any advances towards Gaza. It is worth noting that the prevailing feeling amongst Palestinians in Gaza, and perhaps behind closed doors within the resistance movements, is to avoid a heated military confrontation with the Israelis at this stage, at least in Gaza. This is to deny Israel the opportunity to export to the Gaza Strip its security failures and military ineffectiveness in the face of the West Bank attacks. The assassination of a senior figure, or figures, in Gaza could, of course, change the equation; there are many predictions that this will happen.
In the field on the Gaza borders, there are missile exchanges between the Israeli army and armed Palestinian groups. The Israeli air force is also making early morning bombing runs against targets in the Strip.
At the moment, Hamas is controlling anger at Israel’s provocation, because it knows that any response from Gaza involving more than a few ineffective rockets could well push it into another major military confrontation. Instead, the movement is trying to rally Palestinian public opinion, all the while knowing that there is little enthusiasm for serious fighting.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians believe that the countdown to the next Israeli offensive has already started. I have seen at least ten major articles written by Israeli military and security heavyweights inciting the public against Gaza and scaremongering about the danger from the tunnels and missile testing. This prompts questions about the timing of the attack, what it will consist of and whether it will be limited or widespread. All are being asked in light of Israeli leaks about a possible war in Gaza, or pre-emptive strikes against the Hamas tunnels, for example, in the event that a large scale resistance operation takes place inside Israel.
The Israeli behaviour is, once again, typical. The crisis of the three settlers abducted in Hebron in mid-2014 was overshadowed by the third offensive against Gaza, despite warnings at the time that the threats against Gaza would drag the area into a cycle of violence. However, Israel always rushes headlong into things, but it did not realise that although it controlled the decision to start the escalation, it did not necessarily have control over when it ended; the wars against the Palestinians in Gaza are a good example of this.
The security crisis caused by the ongoing Quds Intifada in the West Bank and inside Israel has driven the government to balance public anger at the inability to stop “lone-wolf” attacks with the climate of fear in the heart of their “safe” cities and homes. It has also had to deal with political pressure from the right-wing within the coalition to react harshly. The government needs to exercise a degree of caution, though; any violent confrontation with Hamas in Gaza may escalate into a full-scale military operation, and the volatility of the post-Arab Spring streets makes this an unattractive scenario. Although there have been calls to destroy Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza, the de facto government there must not collapse as the alternatives are, in Israeli eyes, much worse.
Despite this, it seems that the Israeli government has reached a consensus on the need to settle its scores with Hamas by waging a war against its leaders and infrastructure. However, it knows that uncontrolled operations affecting civilians would lose Israel international sympathy. As such, ministers and opposition leaders are competing with rhetoric about threatening the Palestinians with a large-scale war, the return of an assassination policy, destroying the infrastructure and deporting senior Hamas and other activists from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. This was made clear in successive Israeli statements suggesting the following: the need to deter Palestinian organisations from killing Israelis; levying a hefty price from the entire Palestinian leadership; and threatening that Israel’s response would be harsher than anyone could imagine, including a minister’s claim of not knowing how many Hamas leaders will still be alive afterwards. The Israelis also suggested that the army would continue to monitor Gaza’s borders to prevent attacks on military patrols and the firing of rockets. Other options are also being considered while preparations are made for an escalation of the situation, despite claims that the military build-up on the border is for “defensive purposes” only.
Perhaps Tel Aviv knows that it is not in its best interests to deepen the conflict with Gaza and that it should be content with causing fear within Hamas ranks; the recommendations of the ministerial council’s security advisers are regarded as a show of strength and readiness without “causing damage”. That is why the army was redeployed on the Gaza border with ammunition and equipment, the navy has been even more visible off the coast and there has been an increase in the number of fighter-bombers in Gaza’s air space. In response, Hamas has warned the Israeli government against testing its patience and vowed that in the event that war is imposed on the Palestinians, it will show the world how fragile the Israelis really are. The movement is taking Israel’s threats seriously and does not trust its government.
Security precautions have been taken in Gaza, despite the fact that the Palestinian resistance forces are not interested in escalating matters. It is clear that the days when it would only be the Israeli leadership which dictates when, where and how the battle will begin and end are over. Although Israel may decide when hostilities start, it will not be in full control of their magnitude, the course of events and their consequences. A plethora of statements from Hamas politicians and military spokesmen suggest that its fighters are ready for the moment of truth.
While the current battlefield between the Israelis and Palestinians is the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, and inside Israel itself, with Gaza providing political and media support, the decision-makers in Tel Aviv seem intent on reverting to the tried and tested tactic of switching attention towards the Gaza Strip. This requires the Palestinian leadership to prevent Israel from having any excuse to escalate the relatively low-grade intifada into a full-scale war. They should pass on the opportunity to exploit the hysteria within Israeli society and bide their time.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 25 January, 2016
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.