Israel Now Sees a Rare Opportunity for Long-term Quiet in Gaza

About 10 days after the end of the latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip, this time against Islamic Jihad, the army has identified a rare opportunity for progress. The Israeli assassination of senior Islamic Jihad operative Baha Abu al-Ata removed what has been the main threat to calm in the Gaza Strip over the past year. At the same time, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar, is showing great interest in coming to a long-term agreement with Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff supports far-reaching relief measures in Gaza in exchange for assurances of quiet. The final decision rests with the politicians, who are mired in a legal and political crisis centered around three indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as great difficulties in forming a new government. In contrast to the army, the Shin Bet security service’s position on the matter is more restrained, the main point of contention being whether thousands more laborers from the Gaza Strip can be allowed into Israel to work.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50Haaretz

While Operation Protective Edge, the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, ended in a military disappointment as far as Israel was concerned, it did result in about three and a half years of relative calm on the Gaza border. But the Netanyahu government’s fear of political criticism at home, along with the frozen negotiations with Hamas over the return of missing and captured Israelis in Gaza, have prevented progress on a long-term agreement.

At the end of March 2018, Hamas extended its patronage to the mass demonstrations taking place weekly on the Gaza border. These quickly deteriorated into violent clashes, during which many of the protesters tried to break through the fence into Israel and were shot by army snipers. In incidents since then, most of which occurred during the Friday protests at the border, more than 300 Palestinians have been killed and a few thousand wounded by Israeli fire.

At the same time, Palestinians ignited a wave of fires in Israeli fields along the Gaza border, by means of kites and balloons carrying incendiary devices. The escalation continued, accompanied by hundreds of rockets fired at Israel. In a two-day round of fighting in May, four Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas rockets and anti-tank fire. In the latest flare-up, which began on November 12 with the assassination of Ata, 35 Palestinians, most of them members of Islamic Jihad, were killed and 500 rockets were launched at Israel.

But the quick end to the latest round, which lasted two days, has given Israel a rare chance of making progress – and perhaps capitalizing on the opportunity that was missed five years ago, after the 2014 conflict. Ata was responsible for more than 90 percent of rocket fire over the past year. Killing him has left Islamic Jihad weakened militarily, with more than 20 operatives from the group’s military wing killed in Israeli strikes.

A wheat field hit by an incendiary device launched from Gaza burns near Kibbutz Re’im, on the Gaza border, June 28, 2019. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This is the context in which Islamic Jihad’s leadership decided to reach a cease-fire with Israel, about 50 hours after the shooting began. The group will probably need time to recover. This is an opportunity to restore it to its original status as a secondary faction to Hamas, not a group that dictates developments, as was the case over the past year.