Friday, May 6, 2016

Forecast: A very hot summer in Gaza - Yoav Limor

by Yoav Limor

On the surface, this mutual restraint testifies to a lack of interest for both sides to expand the scope of hostilities. Beneath the surface, however, the situation is far more combustible.

The current escalation in Gaza was written on the wall, as the cliche says. The IDF prepared for it, Hamas prepared for it, both without either side truly wanting it. How and to what degree it develops is now dependent on a number of factors, which will determine whether we find ourselves mired in the next version of Operation Protective Edge. 

The events of the past 24 hours are particularly noteworthy because of the relative calm of the past two years. Fewer than 40 rockets have been fired at Israel since Protective Edge, and the number of Israeli casualties has been the lowest it has ever been. Gaza border area residents also enjoyed tranquility during this period: The border area communities absorbed dozens of new families, farmers worked every last inch of their fields, and tourists filled the bread and breakfast lodges. 

Below the surface of this idyllic situation, however, Hamas was busy digging its tunnels. The terrorist group's insights from Protective Edge were clear: While Hamas failed on land and in the air, Israel did not have an answer to the challenge Hamas posed underground. The tunnel project was given ultimate priority; the number of diggers was significantly increased, along with the budget. The goal: to finish digging dozens of attack tunnels stretching into Israeli territory, and hundreds off additional defensive tunnels inside Gaza to hide in during the fighting.

This concerted effort did not go unnoticed by Israel, which treated the tunnels as the primary threat facing the country this year. The intelligence gathering campaign (spearheaded by Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security agency) was put into high gear, as was the push to develop the proper technology. This was clearly a race against time: Detect the tunnels before Hamas put them to use.

Last month, the first tunnel was discovered crossing into Israel from southern Gaza. Hamas, for its own reasons, chose not to fight for it. As a result of this discovery, efforts to find more were intensified even further. We can assume this provided the pretext for the exchange of fire over the past day: The IDF is digging to locate more tunnels, Hamas is shooting to disrupt these efforts and to warn Israel. 

For now, this skirmish is confined to a very limited "field of play." Hamas is shooting only at military targets, as it says the IDF is crossing the security fence and entering Gaza. Israel, in turn, is limiting its response to hitting Hamas military targets while ensuring that the number of casualties remains small to nonexistent, to minimize the possibility of a tit-for-tat escalation.

On the surface, this mutual restraint testifies to a lack of interest for both sides to expand the scope of hostilities. Beneath the surface, however, the situation is far more combustible. The situation in Gaza now is worse than it was before Hamas decided to go to war two years ago: Unemployment has risen while gross domestic product has dropped; tens of thousands of people are still homeless; electricity runs for only eight hours a day and the water is salty; hundreds of thousands rely on aid organizations for food and medicine; and worse of all, Gaza is under siege, people cannot enter or exit, and an Egyptian decision to open the Rafah crossing does not appear to be on the horizon. 

Other factors are also exacerbating the situation. Arab states, far more occupied with the Islamic State group and Iran, are ignoring Gaza; hostilities between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are ongoing, as is the wave of terrorism in Judea and Samaria; and extremist elements in Gaza continue to pose a weakened yet persistent threat to Hamas rule. All these factors, together with the threat to its tunnel project now posed by Israel, could lead Hamas to conclude that it has nothing to lose.

This likely won't happen tomorrow, but let us not be mistaken: We are enmeshed in a negative dynamic. Suspicions are rising and with them the potential for a harsh escalation. Considering these conditions, you don't need to be a weatherman to forecast a very hot summer in the south this year.

Yoav Limor


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