Why did Israel and Hamas almost go to war?

Just last week I was reflecting how quiet the Israel-Gaza border had been recently. It seemed Israel and Hamas were moving closer to a concrete understanding quietly agreed by Prime Minister Netanyahu during the election campaign.

Then on Friday morning a series of incidents took place; Palestinian protestors were shot, Israeli soldiers shot by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) snipers and Hamas fighters killed in air strikes. Hamas and PIJ then launched a massive, indiscriminate missile attack.

When a ceasefire came into effect at 04:30 on Monday 6 May 690 missiles had been fired at Israel since Saturday morning. 4 Israelis were killed and 123 wounded. Israeli air strikes hit more than 300 military targets in Gaza. Palestinian sources say 25 Palestinians were killed but Israeli sources say a large number of these were Hamas and PIJ fighters manning military posts or firing missiles. The Israeli army said a Palestinian mother and baby that Hamas said died in an Israeli strike were actually killed by a Hamas missile. Israel also killed a senior Hamas leader responsible for collecting funds from Iran.

Why did this happen? The simple answer is that Hamas felt it wasn’t getting what it expected from its deal with the Israeli leadership. With Remembrance Day and Independence Day next week and the Eurovision song contest days later, Hamas calculated it could quickly inflict heavy damage and Israel would agree more concessions in a desperate bid to stop the conflict.

The ceasefire has been criticised in Israel and politicians from all sides said Netanyahu’s response was weak. He is still Defence Minister as well as Prime Minister and the new coalition Government has not yet been formed.

The latest attacks have led to increased warnings from military analysts that Israel is losing its deterrent capability. In short, Hamas doesn’t appear to be sufficiently afraid of Israel’s response. On the contrary it is getting bolder. With each new phase of fighting the intensity and range of Gaza missiles is increasing. Nearly 700 missiles in two days is a new high. Kornet anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli civilian vehicles and missile fire was concentrated on the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva overwhelming the Iron dome defence system.

But this is not just a fight between Hamas, PIJ and Israel. It has wider dimensions. Israeli intelligence sources emphasise the role of Iran. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is influenced by Iran to a far greater extent than Hamas. Both groups receive funds and weapons from Iran but PIJ is smaller and more reliant on the Islamic Republic. Its leaders are based in Damascus where they consult regularly with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders. One theory is that Iran encouraged the latest flare up to punish Israel for Israeli air strikes on Iranian forces in Syria and give Iranian forces in Syria some breathing space.

Hamas’s stance is dictated not just by its overarching objective to destroy Israel. It is deeply engaged in two key struggles – firstly the fight against other radical groups that challenge its rule in Gaza and the fight with the PLO to lead the Palestinian national movement. Both struggles determine how Hamas acts.

Hamas faces competition and pressure in Gaza from PIJ and a number of small radical Salafi Jihadi groups who want stricter Islamic rule and more attacks against Israel. If Hamas moves closer to a deal with Israel these groups escalate hostilities with Israel to scupper the agreement. It is possible that Islamic Jihad was working towards this in the last two weeks.

The fight today between the PLO and Hamas is just the latest incarnation of a thirty-year struggle for the soul of the Palestinian national movement. A conflict between radical Islam and more secular nationalism. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are fierce opponents of Hamas and want to rule Gaza, but only if Hamas disarms, which they refuse to do. So, the PA opposes Israeli deals to improve the situation in Gaza.

Despite the many criticisms of the Israeli Government’s handling of Gaza, there are four possible military and political options. Option one is a comprehensive long-term ceasefire deal. Hamas rejects the two-state solution and wants to destroy Israel so this would be a hard sell for any Israeli leader. The elements of this deal would include allowing Qatar to send regular cash to Gaza, increase fuel supplies, coordinate infrastructure investment and construction of power stations and desalination facilities, large numbers of Gazans working in Israel, open border crossings and the end of the land and sea blockade of Gaza.

In return Hamas would have to cease violence, disarm, stop building tunnels into Israel, stop building missiles and advanced military capability. It would also have to crack down on smaller terrorist groups.

The final part of this deal would be the Israeli demand for the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 and two Israeli civilians currently detained in Gaza. In return Hamas would demand that a large number of its prisoners be released from Israeli prisons. This grand bargain would carry a heavy political cost for Prime Minister Netanyahu and he would be severely criticised from all sides in Israel. So far, he hasn’t been prepared to move in this direction. It is also very unlikely that Hamas would commit to dismantle its military capability and cease violence.

A second option is a short-term limited and fragile ceasefire that lasts days or weeks, until the next hostilities break out. As an interim deal each side would only commit to partial measures. Israel would open some crossings, allow in fuel and supplies and Qatari cash, but no long-term projects can begin. This has led to short periods of reduced violence but each side is constantly preparing for the next wave of hostilities. This is where we are now.

A third option is for Israel to launch a limited military operation, similar to 2014, that involves heavy air strikes on Gaza, destruction of Hamas and PIJ military capabilities and ground troops to search and destroy missile depots and arms stores. This would involve heavy casualties on both sides but could potentially lead to a longer period without hostilities afterwards, as happened after the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been reluctant to do this as he is aware of the very high cost and limited impact.

The fourth option is an Israeli invasion of Gaza, taking control of the area, destroying Hamas’s military infrastructure, arresting its leaders and asking the PA to run Gaza afterwards. This is being talked up as a solution by some figures on the right in Israel who engage in military fantasies but argue this is the only way to break the deadlock. The loss of life on both sides would be devastating. Israel would have to launch a full ground invasion in a densely populated area with a network of underground tunnels. It’s an urban warfare nightmare scenario and extremely unlikely ever to be carried out.

Hamas could alleviate the misery of the people of Gaza today if it wished. It could create the conditions for a long term agreement with Israel, recognise its existence, commit to a two-state solution, stop diverting vast funds to its military, disarm and start investing in basic services for Gazans. The blockade could be lifted and more international aid and investment would follow. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, evacuating every Israeli settlement and Israeli citizen, it is not interested in an inch of land there. Gaza is in dire straits now but could one day flourish. Shimon Peres once said it could be the Singapore of the Middle East, that is a long way off, but it’s not impossible.

Originally published in Jewish News