Another round of violence in the south came to an end over the weekend, albeit this time in an unusual manner: Israel and Hamas proved that they could reach an agreement without attacks, rockets or casualties.
At times it appeared as if things were about to get completely out of control, yet this round saw each side swiftly respond to the actions of the other in a sort of Ping-Pong match. Frustrated by the pace of the humanitarian relief, Hamas began to allow a few incendiary balloons to be launched over the border. Israel, in response, restricted the Gaza fishing zone. Hamas immediately increased the balloon arson attacks, which led to Israel further restricting Gaza’s fishing zone. This in turn resulted in a halt of the supply of fuel to the coastal enclave, which prompted additional balloon terrorism.
Egypt and representatives from the UN put an end to this back-and-forth when they asked both Israel and Hamas for a cease-fire. Among the two sides, an argument developed as to who would be the first to hold their fire. Ultimately, it was decided to act simultaneously. Israel, in accordance with the agreement, allowed for the renewed expansion of the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles and renewed the transfer of fuel. Hamas responded accordingly, on Friday launching 14 incendiary balloons toward Israel, a decrease from the over 100 launched from the coastal enclave from the beginning of last week. By Saturday, that number had dropped to zero.
It was in this manner that Hamas proved what Israel has been claiming all along: The terrorist organization quite literally controls the height of the flames, and the launches were not being carried out by punks but rather at its guidance, or at the very least by Hamas having turned a blind eye.
Still, only a hopeless optimist would believe the reality on the ground has fundamentally changed over the course of the weekend. While calm has been achieved, absent broader understandings, the conflict will quickly resume.
The Egyptian delegation is set to return to the region this week, making stops in Jerusalem and Gaza in an attempt to promote broader moves toward calm. Hamas, which was also frustrated it wasn’t taken into consideration at the Bahrain economic conference last week, may have set out new demands, mainly concerning the division of funds transferred from Qatar every month, but they are unlikely to present a genuine obstacle to the possibility of moving forward on broader understandings.
It appears that for now at least, the main obstacle could actually come from the Israeli side. In Gaza, there are always enough explosives to blow up a deal, but the election campaign could obligate the Israeli government to become more hawkish on the terrorist enclave.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the overwhelming support of the defense system, continues to support a moderate policy that prioritizes attempts toward calm rather than an escalation, but he could find it difficult to be persistent in his approach over time when dealing with his rivals on the Left, Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. Those former generals insisted on Saturday that “you don’t respond to fire with suitcases of cash” and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his fellow running mate former IDF General Yair Golan also demanded that the government adopt a much firmer stance.
Given this kind of situation, the coming weeks in the south promise to be extremely volatile. On one hand, Israel and Hamas have proved they are able to conduct a controlled escalation without the use of explosions. On the other hand, it is doubtful that both sides will succeed in keeping it up for long. If Hamas doesn’t get what it wants, it will renew the balloon terrorism as soon as possible, possibly even in a number of days. Should that happen, Israel will respond in the same way it has before, by restricting the fishing zone and the provision of fuel.
From there, the path to escalation will be short. It is not clear if the next time around it will be possible to keep the situation from deteriorating through the use of words, and not missiles, alone. Therefore, a realistic assessment of the situation remains the same as it was at the beginning of the year: The southern front will be very tense this summer, with flare-ups of violence that will demand complicated maneuvers, quite a few concessions and both sides who will need to take a deep breath to make it through the coming months without a major escalation.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Hayom