While the aftermath of the onslaught by Israel on Gaza between 12 and 21 May has not ended, a new confrontation is brewing amid a tense situation on the ground after a new government came to power in Israel headed by leader of the Yamina Party Naftali Bennett.
At the same time, Egyptian efforts are underway to defuse tensions, instill calm and solidify the ceasefire agreement between the Palestinian factions and Israel.
The peak of the new confrontation came last week, when Israel repeatedly bombed Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. Israel claimed that this was in response to the Palestinian factions releasing explosive balloons in the direction of Israeli settlements alongside Gaza, causing fires.
The Palestinian factions and Israel exchanged threats of re-igniting the military confrontations as Israel continues its 15-year siege of Gaza. For Hamas, the new Israeli bombing campaign was simply “posturing” by the new Israeli government.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group said that the Palestinian factions had told Egypt they would respond to any future Israeli bombing of Gaza, according to Khedr Habib, a leading member of Islamic Jihad.
“The joint operations group of resistance factions has decided on a united position to deal with any further Israeli actions in the future,” Habib said. “We will not hesitate to confront them whatever the consequences. The resistance will not tolerate more Israeli attacks.”
The Palestinian factions believe that Israel’s attacks are an attempt to change the rules of engagement between the two sides, saying that sending fire balloons over Israel is a form of resistance. Bennett has been arguing that the balloons are similar to rockets, saying that they will be met with the same response as rockets launched from Gaza.
In response to an escalating situation, Israeli army chief of staff Aviv Kochavi raised the level of readiness in Israel, including the possibility of a return to fighting in Gaza. Kochavi, on a visit to Washington, did not cancel his trip in response to the escalation, indicating progress on the de-escalation track.
Starting on Monday, Israel has allowed the re-opening of Gaza border crossings and travel to the West Bank, along with export and import activities from and to the Gaza Strip. It is expected to partially lift the siege by increasing the area allowed to Palestinian fishermen.
The steps coincide with reports in the Israeli media quoting unnamed Israeli officials as saying that Egypt has pressured Israel to forge ahead with the ceasefire agreement. Cairo has asked Israel to take confidence-building steps such as expanding fishing areas and postal services in Gaza, adding that it will host meetings to move forward on other issues, most notably a prisoner-exchange deal between Hamas and Israel.
Despite Israeli steps to alleviate the blockade on Gaza, there are indications that the temperature is rising between the Palestinian factions and Israel notably owing to the composition and stance of the new Israeli government. There has been a lack of progress in the reconciliation among the Palestinian factions, which often also leads to escalation with Israel.
The new Israeli government includes two former ministers of defence. Benny Gantz, the present minister, has been joined by Bennett, a former defence minister, and Avigdor Lieberman, also a former defence minister. The three men will be aiming to find ways to guarantee continued public support for the fragile cabinet and will need to survive keen scrutiny by the opposition right-wing bloc led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bennett wants to appear firm towards the Palestinian factions in Gaza, since “the failure to achieve deterrence,” as the Israelis describe it, was a key criticism of Netanyahu’s ousted government. Bennett also wants to portray Israel as the victor in the recent military confrontations, even if the Israeli military failed to convey this message.
In addition to the domestic challenges, Tel Aviv’s insistence that progress in the prisoner-exchange talks with Hamas should be part of a future truce poses a challenge to upholding the ceasefire. The Palestinian factions adamantly reject connecting the de-escalation talks to the prisoner-exchange deal.
Despite the news blackout on current efforts on the prisoner-exchange issue and the lack of statements by either side, the gap between what Hamas and Israel are demanding indicates that reaching an agreement will be difficult.
For this reason, Hamas wants to separate the truce and the lifting of the blockade from the prisoner-exchange track. It wants to be free of pressure resulting from the humanitarian repercussions due to the siege during the talks and be under less pressure during the negotiations for the release of four Israelis captured in Gaza.
In recent days, the fire balloons released from Gaza have ceased, which in turn has brought an end to the renewed Israeli bombing of Gaza. UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Tor Wennesland has also visited Gaza and met with Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar, who said the meeting did not go well.
Al-Sinwar said Israel was trying to evade its responsibilities in the truce agreement and “has not understood” the message sent by the Palestinian people in the confrontation. His statement was preceded by threats by Gantz to launch a new military campaign on Gaza if the truce attempts fail. Gantz said the operation would aim to weaken Hamas and force it to agree to a truce on Israeli conditions.
The quick return of tensions between the two sides compounds the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, owing to the 15 years of siege and the four destructive wars carried out by Israel. It also means a delay in addressing the resulting crises, including the crushing economic conditions, high unemployment rates and environmental, social and psychological traumas that afflict the majority of Gaza residents.
The rising tensions have also raised questions in Israel about “achieving deterrence,” one of the main causes behind the recent war on Gaza, according to Israel. Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej from the Meretz Party said there were few or no options to solve the Gaza dilemma.
Israel’s domestic issues are always present in its handling of Gaza and indicate that another confrontation may be just around the corner. The Israeli army needs to restore the missile stockpile of its Iron Dome missile-intercept system, however, estimated to cost more than $120 million, as well as its database of targets in Gaza.
This means that any decision to restart the fighting will be a military as well as a political one.
Meanwhile, economic pressures and excruciating humanitarian conditions in Gaza could force the Palestinian factions to make compromises to avoid confrontations they do not want. The greater dilemma, however, is the yawning gap between the minimum that the Palestinian factions could accept and what Israel is offering, along with the exchange of threats between the two sides.
Egypt has been trying to defuse this political minefield and reach understandings that will solidify the ceasefire and maintain calm. This would make way for the reconstruction of the damage inflicted on the Gaza Strip.
It would also be a step towards confidence-building between the two sides and pave the way for serious negotiations on the prisoner-exchange between Hamas and Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly