Gazans are apprehensive about the fragile calm in the Gaza Strip under sporadic Israeli air strikes, followed by counter-attacks by the Palestinian resistance.
This leaves all options open: continued intermittent strikes, or a return to assassinating senior resistance figures, or even all-out war, especially amid growing discontent in Israel towards the government due to what Israeli media describes as a retreat in the face of Palestinian resistance during recent confrontations in Gaza and a failure to respond forcefully to attacks on settlements neighbouring Gaza.
This has angered Israeli political and military leaders who threatened revenge.
A public opinion survey published in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper revealed that 86 per cent of Israelis want a return to assassinations of Hamas leaders to restore deterrence, while 14 per cent disagree because it would “make things worse”.
Haaretz newspaper reported Israel has been readying for months to return to assassinations in the wake of continued escalation. This would be better than a broad military operation in Gaza.
“It is time to stop the attrition by the resistance,” declared General Mounir Dhaher, a Druze and former official in the Middle East department at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “It is time to deal with their leaders. Since Israel chose a strategy of carefully targeting specific resistance targets without annihilating the group into submission, the resistance will feel victorious because Israel failed to overrun them completely.”
Ahmed Youssef, a Hamas leader, expected as much. “If a comprehensive truce is not reached in Gaza, the situation on the ground is likely to escalate exponentially. There could be intensive Israeli strikes that destabilise Gaza and terrorise Gazans,” stated Youssef.
“If the fragile calm holds without guarantees it will continue, there will be military confrontations. Perhaps by Eid (the Islamic holiday this month) we will be in a much worse place and living miserably.”
He explained that military strikes “will not be limited to targeting the military positions of Palestinian factions, but will also target civilian and public sites, such as Al-Masahel Cultural Centre that was destroyed Friday. It sent a strong message to Hamas and Palestinian resistance factions.”
Youssef, who is also the director of the NGO Beit Al-Hekma Consulting, focused on conflict resolution, said it is likely that Israel will restart assassinations of senior Palestinians, most notably Hamas political and military leaders. “Israel wants to send a message to Hamas that no one is safe in Gaza, and everyone can be targeted and killed.”
The general political and military mood in Israel is leaning towards a military strike against Gaza, according to Youssef, “whether this is through direct confrontations on the ground as we saw in 2014 or persistent and concentrated air strikes”.
The writer on Hebrew affairs on the Website of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, warned that “any dumb move by the occupation will cost them unbearable destruction and pain.”
He continued: “the enemy should not delude themselves, especially since our response will be unprecedented both in quality and size. We will not stop until we achieve all our goals.” He noted that “de-escalation is sometimes necessary, but we are always guarding our land.”
Commenting on the ceasefire agreement, he said: “These are landmarks on the road due to reality until further notice, and can change once reality changes. Hamas will never renege on an agreement it signed even if it is with a deceptive and atrocious enemy. It is the other side that is well known for breaking their promises.”
General Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser, said: “There is always a risk in any agreement with Hamas because you cannot guarantee they will not continue developing their military capabilities. Although Israel will enjoy calm for several years, Hamas will not be disturbed as it continues to arm itself. The recent ceasefire agreement can be described as a sign of Israel’s weakness.”
Amidror continued: “If there is a clear benefit for Israel in Gaza then we should not worry about escalation there, but we should not waste our military capabilities on a small threat like Gaza even though it is a source of annoyance and undermines Israel’s prestige, such as with paper kites.”
The former head of research at Aman, Israel’s military intelligence, added that “we must look for inexpensive solutions to the threat on the southern border, and not be distracted from other more serious threats such as Iran and Syria, and not overreact when taking decisions.” Amidror said, “Hamas feels it is safer because of its ability to deter Israel from launching a broad military campaign in Gaza, which means it carries out military training and manoeuvres on the border.
Between reaction and counter reaction, both sides, Hamas and Israel, are moving step by step towards a downward spiral that will be difficult to exit, even though they both have good reasons to stop.”
He concluded: “Even if Iron Dome continues to successfully intercept Hamas rockets from Gaza, the emergency sirens are enough to drive Israelis crazy.
The overall sense is that if rockets continue to launch from Gaza it will put pressure on the Israeli army, but Hamas continues these attacks despite their harm to them.”
Ibrahim Jaber, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs, said Israel is very worried about making a long-term truce with Palestinian resistance because that would help the latter build up their weapons stash, increase their military capabilities and prepare for the next battle.
“That is why some people are demanding escalation and a strong response to Gaza, so the resistance does not feel safe towards Israel,” said Jaber.
“There is a general belief in Israel that broad military operations against Gaza is due and it is only a matter of time.”
He believes Israeli threats against Gaza are serious. “There may not be all-out war before the wall on the border with Gaza is built, which aims to block the resistance from tunnelling under and killing Israelis as was the case in the last war,” Jaber explained.
Another Palestinian analyst, Sadek Al-Shafei, said the request by members of Hamas’s politburo overseas to come to Gaza, and Israel’s approval, via Egypt, and guaranteeing their safety, confirms that Tel Aviv wants the politburo to meet and take decisions.
It is willing to interact with the group if it is responsive to Israel’s demands and conditions.
Indeed, Salah Al-Aruri, a key figure attending from overseas, is on Israel’s most wanted list. Shafei continued that Hamas needed its entire politburo to meet so it can take unified decisions on a variety of issues.
Shafei said the US administration is aware of what is taking place and supports the path to a truce. It does not object to conciliation if it serves de-escalation, but will ignore conciliation and the Palestinian leadership if the truce faces problems.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Palestinians anxious in Gaza