On Timing, Consciousness & "Misunderstandings"

This week's events in the Gaza Strip arrived at a strange timing and under equally strange circumstances. What characterizes this particular round against Hamas and what should be expected next? Amir Rapaport’s weekly column

Israeli forces deployed near the Gaza border (Photo: AP)

The current round of fighting opposite the Gaza Strip is unprecedented in its characteristics – even strange.

The Timing

This may sound unreliable, but one should not rule out the possibility that the launching of the missile toward Moshav Mishmeret earlier this week was, once again, the result of a "malfunction." The previous launch into the Dan Region – two rockets fired in the evening hours of March 14, took place as a meeting was underway between the Egyptian intelligence officer in charge of the Palestinian issue, Ahmed Abd Elhak, and the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. The unfinished business on the agenda: the "arrangement" talks between Israel and Hamas.

Senior Hamas functionaries who attended the meeting looked stunned when news of the rocket launch was reported to the participants. As none of the participants is a Hollywood-class actor, their surprise must have been authentic.

Subsequent estimates maintained that the launch was triggered by a malfunction in a new system designed to enable remotely-controlled rocket launches. Has this system malfunctioned again this week, thereby triggering the launch into the Sharon Region? Apparently, this must not be ruled out, as hard to believe as it may be.

So, if that is the situation, the recognition of said "error" may have been the reason why Hamas responded in a relatively mild manner (less than one hundred rocket launches this week, mainly to settlements close to the border fence) to the attacks by the IDF, just as Israel had, in fact, "contained" the launching of more than 500 rockets, the response by Hamas to the operation of a specialist IDF unit uncovered deep inside the Gaza Strip, which subsequently engaged in combat there just a few months ago. Whether the recent launch was accidental, or carefully planned to convey a message on behalf of Hamas, the flare-up opposite the Gaza Strip occurred at a time that was more or less known in advance.

Evidently, when Aviv Kochavi entered office as IDF Chief of Staff, just two and a half months ago, he made it clear that the Gaza front was a top priority and that the IDF should prepare for a confrontation there. Since then, quite a few conferences and seminars for senior commanders have been held in anticipation of the inevitable flare-up – which has, indeed, taken place. On the ground, numerous IDF units have trained for a possible operation in the Gaza Strip. One of them is the IDF 7th Armored Brigade.

The two formative events of the current period are, of course, the Israeli general elections – with the race now entering the last stretch, and on the other side – the anniversary of the emergence of the riots at the border fence, which Hamas will be commemorating this weekend, in addition to "Land Day."

Consciousness

The sensitive timing has also led to a situation where a primary characteristic of the current round is the battle over the "hearts and minds" (consciousness). Two weeks before the elections, the political echelon in Israel could not disregard the launch into the Sharon Region along with the preparations for particularly violent riots at the border fence this weekend. From the Gazan perspective, Hamas currently faces surging internal criticism leading even to demonstrations against it. On the one hand, Hamas cannot afford to "fold." On the other hand, it cannot afford to drag the Gaza Strip into a confrontation that would cost the Gazans dearly.

In view of the above, both parties are investing substantially in conveying carefully-formulated messages. In addition, Israel has attacked Ismail Haniyeh's office – a particularly "consciousness-targeting" measure, reminiscent of the attacks against Hassan Nasrallah's Dahieh neighborhood of Beirut during the Second Lebanon War.

The current round has also positioned the Egyptian honor on the scales, among other things. Egyptian intelligence is investing substantially in the arrangement talks between Israel and Hamas, and both parties would like nothing less than disappointing the Egyptians.

What Next?

While the Prime Minister was still in the USA, the IAF started attacking targets in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, three IDF brigades (including the 7th Armored Brigade) started assembling opposite the border fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, along with a divisional command center.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced a ceasefire, but the exchange of blows continued on the back burner (everything is relative). Meanwhile, the IDF has amassed the required force opposite the Gaza Strip with everyone's eyes set on the developments this weekend.

One way to predict the near future is by answering the question of whether one of the parties could benefit from a large-scale confrontation at this time.

If you look at the basic interests of all of the parties involved (including Egypt), this round, too, will come to an end without a large-scale IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, like all of the previous rounds of the last year, since the deterrence achieved at the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 expired.

The general trend is still toward arrangement. Despite all of the potential criticism this policy might receive at the cabinet, which has not been assembled, Israel faces more complex, more strategically significant fronts – mainly Syria and the Iranian presence there (evidently, even during a tense week in the south, on the night between Wednesday and Thursday, reports came in of an attack against Iranian arms stores near Aleppo, Syria, which foreign sources attributed to Israel). Recapturing the Gaza Strip and knocking down the rule of Hamas are not regarded as an Israeli interest (owing to an extensive range of considerations, including the wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which the present Israeli government does not necessarily regard as evil).

Timing is Everything

The desire to avoid a large-scale confrontation that could jeopardize the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel is another viable consideration.

Apparently, Israel will attempt to take advantage of the current crisis to reach a ceasefire arrangement that would exclude the use of arson balloons.

Except such things have happened before: wars did break out because of "errors" and "misunderstandings."

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