Photo Credit: Asher Shwartz

{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

On May 5 and 6, 700 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israeli territory in less than 48 hours. It was the most intensive rocket offensive on Israel to date. Four people were killed: three Israelis and one Palestinian Arab worker. One of the Israelis was hit in his car by an anti-tank missile. The Israeli military retaliated and resumed targeted killings. One was to a Hamas member, Hamed al-Khoudary, considered responsible for the transfer of Iranian funds to the armed factions in Gaza. On May 6, a spokesman from Islamic Jihad and Hamas announced a ceasefire and said they had got “what they wanted”.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a short statement: “We struck a powerful blow against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The campaign is not finished, and it will require patience and careful judgment. We’re prepared for its continuation”.

Various Israeli politicians, including members of the parties negotiating to be in the new governing coalition Netanyahu is building, said that the reprisals had been insufficient.

“The ceasefire, in the circumstances it was reached under, has no gains for Israel”, noted Likud MK Gideon Saar. “The time between each round of violent attacks against Israel and its citizens is shrinking, and terror organizations in Gaza are strengthening. The fighting hasn’t been ended, just pushed off.”

Television interviews broadcast by the Israeli news channels show that the population of the south of the country is upset and would apparently like more drastic action.

The Israeli left accused Netanyahu of sparing Hamas in order to keep Palestinians divided, weaken the Palestinian Authority (PA) and prevent the resumption of talks that could lead to the creation of a “Palestinian state”. Yoram Yuval, a professor at the University of Haifa, wrote in the daily Yedioth Aharonoth that Netanyahu was keen to continue, “claiming that there is no one on the Palestinian side to talk to, thereby avoiding any peace arrangement that would require the return of territories and the evacuation of settlements”.

These accusations are without merit. The Palestinian Authority is already weak. Polls show that if elections were held today in Palestinian-controlled territory, Hamas would win by a landslide. Some commentators say that the PA is on the verge of collapse. The leaders of the PA walked away from the negotiating table a long time ago and show no interest in returning. They have continually refused to do what the Trump administration has asked: stop funding terrorism. They have shown again and again that they do not want a state living peacefully alongside Israel; they want to displace Israel. They have rejected the most generous proposals made by Israeli prime ministers, such as one made by Ehud Olmert in 2008, which included a near-total withdrawal from West Bank and the end of Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Israeli political parties whose members imagined that the “peace process” was not dead and that Israel has a “peace partner” all suffered a crushing defeat in recent Israeli elections.

Netanyahu does not have to divide the Palestinians: they are already divided, and the relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have almost always been bloody. Netanyahu does not have to weaken the Palestinian Authority: the PA has already weakened itself by refusing compromises with U.S. administrations. Netanyahu does not have to help Hamas avoid dialogue with the Palestinian Authority: the PA does not appear remotely interested in dialogue.

A more accurate explanation why Netanyahu did not choose to hit Gaza harder seems to be that he sees that the growing tensions created by Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the result of decisions by Iran — which is being increasingly crippled by US sanctions. Iran’s grip in Syria has also been threatened by Israel having bombed Iran’s military bases in Syrian territory.

The rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Muslim countries, led by Saudi Arabia, creates the conditions for a policy of containment that is likely seen in Tehran as a major threat. The cooperation between Israel’s defense forces and intelligence services and those of Saudi Arabia are increasing. The aim of their cooperation clearly seems to be to destabilize and neutralize the Iranian regime’s aggression. If there were a broader conflict in Gaza, the mullahs might create even more conflict in the Sunni Arab world and impede the actions of the Israeli military to counter Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in Syrian territory and Lebanon.

Netanyahu, who appears to think strategically, evidently sees the big picture: targeting the person responsible for transferring funds from Iran to the armed factions in Gaza was most likely a message sent to Tehran.

Looking ahead, in a few weeks, after Ramadan, the Trump administration is expected to present its peace plan, also called the “deal of the century”. The details of the plan are still secret. What is known so far is that the plan will not include the creation of a Palestinian state. It is also apparently known that the plan will include proposals to solve once and for all the problem of the Palestinian “refugees”. The Trump administration seems already to have already decided that, in accordance with other refugee organizations, the United States will consider only those persons who actually left Israeli territory in 1947-49 as refugees, rather than endless generations of descendants. Last September, for instance, the U.S. decided to stop financing UNWRA.

The new plan is also expected to include economic proposals for Palestinian Arabs living in the Gaza Strip and in territories currently disputed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The US, however, is also expected to make distinctions between Palestinian Arabs, the Palestinian people, and the organizations that govern them.

The Palestinian Authority has already said — before having read the plan, that it will reject it. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are also expected to reject the plan. The mullahs in Iran will probably press them to commit more violence. The new plan will almost certainly receive the approval of the Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia. These states have shown in recent months that they evidently see the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad as obstacles to their own future growth. They might even prefer to see the Palestinian issue, presumably along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, eliminated altogether.

Israel, in any event, might have to act soon.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, bordering Israel’s south, have up to 20,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel — a country roughly the size of Victoria Island. More than 150,000 rockets and missiles are deployed in Iran’s proxy country to Israel’s north, Lebanon. The latest weaponry is more accurate and powerful than a few years ago. Israel’s neighbors now have the means to reach the heart of Israel and its major cities, including Tel Aviv.

This month, Israel’s government restored calm not only by retaliating, but also by making concessions to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Those included accepting Gaza’s importing dual-use civilian goods that can be used to produce rockets and build terror tunnels. Israel also accepted Qatar delivering cash to Gaza, and enlarged the size of the fishing zones along Gaza’s coast. These current concessions might have been the result of wishing to restore calm before Israel’s Independence Day and the Eurovision Song Contest. More concessions from Israel, however, might lead Hamas and Islamic Jihad to think that rocket assaults and killing Israelis are a perfect means of extorting concessions from Israel.

The current situation is not Netanyahu’s fault. It is the result of harmful decisions, such as the Oslo Accords, taken before he became prime minister.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 decision to evacuate Jews from the Gaza Strip was defined at the time as an error. The problem then was apparently that there were not enough troops in as small a country as Israel to defend all its borders if so many soldiers were tied up defending parts of Gaza. A negotiated settlement would likely have turned into an endless rope-a-dope discussion that would drag on indefinitely. In short, the nine-mile strip of land, known as the Philadelphi corridor, which made up the border between Gaza and Egypt, was abandoned. It is now patrolled by Egyptian soldiers and Hamas gunmen. Since that time, in 2005, Hamas has dug tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border to bring in weapons to be used to attack Israel, and dug terror tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border to kidnap Israeli civilians and hold them for ransom.

For years, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have placed most of their military installations under hospitals, schools and mosques, and have used their population as human shields to be able to show “dead babies” to television crews and blame Israel. Israel’s subsequent actions, each time Hamas attacked it, have weakened Hamas, but never crushed it. What is clear is that Israel evidently has no desire to govern or “colonize” Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and try to govern two million antagonistic people.

The result is that each time Hamas restores its capabilities, it becomes more dangerous than before.

Netanyahu doubtless realizes that it would be helpful if Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not there; he also doubtless realizes that there is no guarantee that whoever would succeed them might not be any better, and quite possibly worse.

There have been various suggestions how Israel should respond:

David M. Weinberg, vice-president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, cautions that if deterrence does not become harsher, “a strategy of attrition designed to temporarily deter the enemy and bring about periods of quiet along Israel’s borders” will not be sufficient.

The author and politician Caroline Glick recommended “restoring the kilometer-wide buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border to block assaults on its border “, “destroying Hamas’s store of rockets, mortars and missiles”, and “carrying out strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders”.

Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, observing that Israel’s leaders shy away from victory, writes, “The only way for the conflict to be resolved is for one side to give up.”

Alan Baker, the legal scholar and Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has noted that, “The attacks on Israeli civilian populations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and their use of civilian populations as human shields are crimes against humanity and war crimes “.

David French, an American journalist, wrote:

“[F]iring 600 rockets at civilian targets in a neighboring country is an act of war… and as such it grants the nation-state [Israel] the authority under the international law of armed conflict not just to disable the specific military assets used to carry it out but to destroy those who carried it out…

“It’s time for the world community to stop imposing these double standards on Israel, and start doing what international law requires: holding Hamas responsible for the devastation that results from Israel’s legal, necessary, and proper responses to its provocations. Only then will Hamas know that if it sows the wind, it could truly reap the whirlwind…”

In other words, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are terrorist organizations and should be treated as such.

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