Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A fourth war on Gaza?

Tensions are rising between Hamas and Israel over statements that the group is continuing to build tunnels, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza

A fourth war on Gaza?
A fourth war on Gaza?
Al-Ahram Weekly

Recently, Israel stepped up threats of new military operations against the Gaza Strip, as politicians, both pro-government and opposition, as well as Hebrew-language media, appear to be exaggerating the military capabilities of Hamas.

They mostly focus on dozens of missile tests fired towards the Mediterranean Sea, and the reconstruction of tunnels that penetrate the border and reach deep into Israeli territory. Israel referenced its conclusion that Hamas has restarted tunnel digging to a statement by the group that several members of its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, were killed during new digging operations, along with statements by Ismail Haniyeh, deputy to the group’s politburo chief, admitting that a series of tunnels around Gaza are being dug to protect the Palestinian people and liberate their holy sites.

Palestinian political figures and analysts believe that threats by Israeli politicians and military figures, and exaggerating the power of the resistance in Gaza, are designed to prepare Israeli public opinion and the international community for the possibility of a surprise military strike against Gaza. They note that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could provoke a military confrontation or limited war on Gaza if his government fails to end the growing popular uprising in the West Bank and Jerusalem, or if the uprising takes up arms.

They add that Israel has many reasons to launch a new assault against Gaza, including growing threats from tunnels that were effective during the last war, in the summer of 2014, when Israel lost more than 70 soldiers, and to eradicate the military power of the armed wings of factions, most notably Al-Qassam Brigades. However, they believe it is unlikely the assault will take place soon.

“Hamas needs to be more cautious and focus on aborting Israel’s plans, not provoking them,” said Akram Atallah, a political analyst. Atallah added that there is a high state of alert in the north, with Israel’s anticipation of a strike from Hizbullah in response to the assassination of the group’s leading figure, Samir Qintar, and reports that Hizbullah has received Russian Yakhont missiles. All this means that Israel’s priority should be Hizbullah, not the Gaza Strip.

“Even if Israel is focussed on that right now, this does not mean Gaza should be reassured, because all the reasons behind Israel’s intention to strike still exist,” he added. Reasons include the fact that the last assault on Gaza ended without a genuine Israeli sense of victory, and was followed by an ongoing extensive debate between the government and the opposition about the viability and goals of the war, what Israel achieved, and the performance of the army and government.

Another reason, continued Atallah, is Israel’s failure to achieve the political goal of the war: reaching a final position with Hamas that would allow a permanent truce, where Israel and Hamas lay out their conditions and conclude by the creation of the State of Gaza, assisted by regional states. This was almost accomplished at the Paris conference, where Qatar and Turkey played key roles supporting the idea. However, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and other countries that believe a two-state solution is the proper solution aborted the plan.

Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a ferocious war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 that lasted 51 days, killed 2,200 Palestinians and injured 11,000. It also destroyed thousands of homes and infrastructure already dilapidated because of the siege Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2006.

Faisal Abu Shahla, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and the group’s leadership body in the Gaza Strip, is unfazed by Israel’s threats of another war. “I don’t think their threats are serious because Israel wants to continue separating the Gaza Strip from the West Bank,” said Shahla. “The current situation is ideal for Israel.”

He added, “Hamas is also uninterested in confrontations, and it patrols the borders to prevent missile launches from Gaza into Israel. Neither side has clear intentions to escalate matters more than this.”

Abu Shahla, a member of the Palestinian parliament, explained that Israel’s threats are “a constant and frequent policy because it is trying to distract from political steps taken by the Palestinian leadership that have uncovered Israel’s aggressive policies before the world community”.

The leading Fatah member added: “What is needed from the Palestinians is unity, to solidify our domestic front, which is why we asked to form a national unity government with all factions to be in charge of all issues in Gaza, including security, civil servants, border crossings, the economy and preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections.”

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said it is not seeking, nor does it want, a war. But if it is forced into one it will protect the Palestinian people, and the tunnels it is building are for defensive purposes. This is a step back from bombastic statements by its leaders, including Haniyeh, who said that the group built twice as many tunnels than in Vietnam.

During the funeral of seven Al-Qassam Brigade fighters who died when a tunnel collapsed in East Gaza at the end of January, he said: “Resistance will continue to prepare, build and possess tools of power and resistance because it aims to liberate the land and the people. In East Gaza, there are heroes digging under the ground and in West Gaza there are heroes above ground testing missiles. Our resistance is working diligently to prepare for [taking back] Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Haniyeh continued: “The Al-Qassam Brigades dug tunnels and bunkers to defend and fortify Gaza, to protect the people of Gaza, and establish a launching point towards the rest of the land of Palestine.”

Hamas backtracked after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked by statements about tunnel digging made by Hamas leaders. In a statement issued by Ban’s press spokesman, the UN chief said: “Such statements undermine reconstruction, development and humanitarian efforts by the international community, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. It also subjects a people who have been under a long siege in Gaza to serious risks.”

Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a leading Hamas leader who is viewed as a hawk, denied Palestinian media reports that he said the tunnels have reached inside Israel. In a brief statement issued by the group’s press office, Zahhar said: “Resistance tunnels are defensive to protect our people in the face of Israeli aggression.”

Later, Zahhar told Al-Mayadeen television channel, based in Beirut, “We are not ruling out an Israeli assault on Gaza, but we are not provoking it. Hamas is part of the resistance axis in the region, and we will respond to any attack on the Gaza Strip. If a war is forced on us, we will respond forcefully and the formulae of deterrence have changed.” He added that Israel is trying to blame the Palestinian resistance for the possibility of war.

He continued: “The louder the intifada, the more likely there will be an assault on Gaza.” Zahhar believes Israel is talking about tunnels in Gaza to blackmail Washington into giving more funds to the occupation army. Officials in Tel Aviv, he said, are trying to reassure settlers by making threats of war.

Israel estimates that Hamas was able to repair part of a tunnel network, some of which extends inside Israel, after being damaged during the last assault on the Gaza Strip. Also, that the group is preparing for a new battle by building tunnels and developing missiles, although it is not seeking confrontation, at least in the near future.

Israeli analysts propose two scenarios for the eruption of future confrontations. First, Hamas succeeds in carrying out a major operation in the West Bank, which would result in an Israeli response against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This would force both sides into a confrontation neither wants, similar to the one after three settlers were kidnapped and killed near Hebron in June 2014.

Second, the possibility that Al-Qassam Brigades trigger confrontations without consulting with Hamas’s political leaders, perhaps in response to deteriorating conditions on the border resulting from Israel’s determination to uncover tunnels. Israel fears the tunnels could allow a major Hamas operation, such as the attempted kidnap of Israeli soldiers or even civilians through the tunnels.

The Israeli army’s assumption is that there is no basis to believe Hamas will abandon the tunnels, considered a strategic and important weapon, especially in the absence of any real obstacles along the Gaza border, and the unlikelihood that such obstacles will be created anytime soon because of funding shortages.

Senior security sources told Haaretz newspaper that the expected cost of building a new and deep wall around the Gaza Strip, as a solution to the tunnels, would cost 2.8 billion shekels ($700 million). This is a sum that is not in the defence budget this year.

The tunnels issue cast a shadow on the political dispute between Netanyahu’s government and the opposition and triggered a wave of demonstrations against what they view as Netanyahu’s and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon’s lax response to the tunnels. Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition and Zionist bloc in the Knesset and chairman of the Labour Party, strongly criticised Netanyahu and Yaalon and accused them of ignoring the threat of the tunnels.

“What are you waiting for?” he told Hebrew media. “For terrorists to come out brandishing their weapons into the Kibbutz? The Israeli political leadership must stop hesitating and take decisions, ordering the Israeli army to destroy the tunnels, especially if they are inside Israeli territories.”

He added: “People living near the border with Gaza say they hear digging noises under their homes. Meanwhile, Egyptians are destroying Hamas tunnels on the border with Rafah without hesitation. The political leadership must have a clear and public response to the people, and should stop hesitating and present the people with serious responses.”

He continued: “Hamas is boasting and we are not doing anything. One day we will wake up and discover that, once again, we have underestimated the threat, and this will cost us a lot of blood and sorrow.”

Netanyahu responded to critics by threatening Hamas. “We are working systematically and steadily against all threats,” he told a gathering of Israel’s overseas ambassadors, “including the threat of Hamas. We use both defensive and offensive methods.” He continued: “If we are attacked from the tunnels coming from Gaza, we will respond very aggressively against Hamas, much more forcefully than during Operation Protective Edge.”

It appears both Israel and Hamas are keen on maintaining the current rules of the game without escalating matters into confrontation. Hebrew-language media revealed that the two sides have exchanged messages via mediators that neither side wants escalation or military confrontation right now.

Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that as tensions rose recently between the two sides because of the tunnels, Hamas gave messages to Turkey and Qatar to convey to Israel that the group does not want to escalate the situation and will not attack Israel again.

“We too do not want confrontation resulting from misunderstanding the intentions of the Israeli army,” an Israeli military official told the newspaper. “Hamas believes or was deceived that Israel is about to attack the tunnels, and this was going to lead to a pre-emptive attack by the group using missiles and tunnels to delay or prevent an Israeli attack that would undermine their ability to dig tunnels.”

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