By Michael Milshtein
"If the aggression in Sheikh Jarrah does not stop, the enemy will pay dearly." That recent statement by Mohammad Deif, head of the military wing of the Hamas, reflects a desire by the movement to create a new equation in its relations with Israel. Deif's statement and the launching of salvos of rockets from the Gaza Strip about two weeks ago followed the violent clashes between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, as well as a Palestinian claim that Israel was trying to restrict freedom of worship by Muslims on the Temple Mount.
At the center of the new equation is a threat by Hamas – which as previously mentioned has already been carried out – that it is ready to respond militarily from the Gaza Strip to the occurrences in Jerusalem. The threats of Hamas have previously focused on the Temple Mount, a sensitive site in terms of religion, but the recent statement by Deif demonstrates that the movement is also ready to respond to situations not connected to religion, starting with the aforementioned tension surrounding Sheikh Jarrah over an intention to remove a number of Palestinian families from their homes, and the legal struggle on the question of the cost of the buildings.
The creation of a new equation is based on, among others, a desire by Hamas to fan unrest in Judea and Samaria amid the developments in the Palestinian system, starting with the postponement by Abu Mazen of the elections planned for May of this year, a step that sparked frustration and rage in the movement. Consequently, Hamas aspires to incite the population in the West Bank, including against the Palestinian Authority, while claiming to be the one that is protecting Palestinian national and religious interests, starting with the defense of Jerusalem.
In the near term, the tension over Jerusalem may intensify due to two commemorations that fall in the coming days: Laylat al-Qadr, which is highly charged in terms of religion, and Jerusalem Day, on which, Hamas claims, a large number of Jewish worshippers are expected on the Temple Mount, which it claims requires preparedness and mobilization by Muslims to defend the area.
Clashes between the security forces and residents of East Jerusalem, or between Jews and Arabs, are expected to test the equation that Hamas is trying to create. The more violent and widespread the clashes are, the more likely Hamas will be to respond militarily from the Gaza Strip, including by launching rockets and without taking direct responsibility, mainly by claiming the step is being carried out by "all factions of the opposition".
This kind of scenario may cause an escalation in the Gaza Strip as it did in the past, especially if some of the terror groups, starting with the Islamic Jihad, feel that they have been given a green light to carry out wide-ranging military activity against Israel. To a great extent, the new equation reflects the self-confidence of Hamas, which has mostly abstained from responding to occurrences in Judea and Samaria via military steps in the Gaza Strip that could develop into a large-scale escalation in the area.
It is possible that this time the movement understands that Israel is not interested in large-scale escalation and thus will respond in a measured manner to any provocation by Hamas, and that responses to occurrences in Jerusalem are seen as legitimate in the Palestinian arena and might be understood by officials in the Arab world as well. Besides the preparations for possible escalation in the Gaza Strip following the tension in Jerusalem, Israel must now take a number of steps.
First of all, it must concentrate efforts to block clashes between the populations in Jerusalem, and promote steps to raise awareness among the Palestinian and Arab systems, in which Israel stresses its effort to maintain calm in the city, while warning residents of the Gaza Strip against escalation that is expected as a result of the Hamas policy.
In addition, it must issue public statements regarding restrictions in the civilian field that Israel may impose following a Hamas military response, as well as convey to Hamas, via foreign officials, clear messages regarding Israel's unwillingness to accept the new equation, from which the movement will pay a heavy price.
Dr. Michael Milshtein serves as a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and as Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.